Laval’s fifth season is set to get underway on Friday night as they return to the North Division and a normal travel schedule after winning a pandemic-formed Canadian Division last season. That’s just one of many changes heading into the 2021-22 season.
Generally, in these types of columns, there would be some sort of section about what’s new. This season, that would probably be longer than what hasn’t changed. Instead, let’s dig into some of the key changes.
New Coaching Staff
The departure of Joel Bouchard to Anaheim’s farm team created some ripples around the organization. It’s rare that a coach willingly leaves for a lateral move but that’s what happened here with Bouchard correctly identifying that there’s a better chance for him to get an NHL head coaching job with Anaheim (whose head coach, Dallas Eakins, is someone that may be on the hot seat early) than with Montreal, who just extended Dominique Ducharme following Montreal’s run to the Stanley Cup Final. Bouchard took assistant Daniel Jacob with him to San Diego while Alex Burrows’ spot wasn’t filled last season which left three vacancies to fill.
Jean-Francois Houle was appointed the third head coach in franchise history, coming over after being an assistant with Edmonton’s AHL squad for the past six seasons. The former Canadiens draft pick hasn’t been a head coach in the AHL before but has filled that role both in the QMJHL and ECHL. Long-time NHL winger Kelly Buchberger, who worked with Houle in Bakersfield, has joined the staff as an assistant coach as has long-time QMJHL assistant Martin Laperriere to round out the main coaches. The Rocket also brought in a new video coach in Daniel Harvey from the USports circuit. Marco Marciano held that post previously along with being the goalie coach and will still be in charge of the goaltenders this season.
With plenty of roster turnover, some key contributors have moved on. Veteran Jordan Weal is now in the KHL while Joseph Blandisi, who was third on the team in scoring last season, was non-tendered by Montreal and remains unsigned. Yannick Veilleux, one of their top AHL deals over the past few years, declined an offer to return to go overseas to play in Germany. Alex Belzile is still up with the Canadiens for the time being as well although he’s likely to be on waivers as early as next week.
On the back end, Otto Leskinen opted to head to the KHL as well although Montreal holds his rights. Cale Fleury was lost to Seattle in expansion and after he cleared waivers, he’ll suit up in Charlotte to start this season. He’ll be joined by Gustav Olofsson who signed with the Kraken in free agency, cleared waivers, and was loaned to the Checkers.
On the injury front, while defenceman Josh Brook and winger Joel Teasdale are still with Montreal, both are injured with no known timetable for a return, creating two more pretty big vacancies to fill in the lineup.
With so many key players to try to replace, the Habs and Rocket both spent big this summer, bringing in some quality veterans to play big roles while supplementing their depth with some good AHL contracts.
Up front, Jean-Sebastien Dea is a name some may be familiar with. His NHL aspirations are all but done at this point but he has been a high-producing forward in the minors for several years now. The same can be said for Danick Martel, a waiver claim back in 2018. He has three seasons of at least 20 goals in the AHL. Veteran Gabriel Bourque didn’t play last season but will get his first regular AHL action since 2016-17; he was an NHL depth player in between that time. Kevin Roy was a late addition but a key one after the 28-year-old led Arizona’s AHL affiliate in scoring last season with 30 points, good for a spot in the top-20 league-wide.
On the back end, Louie Belpedio is the biggest name to highlight. The 25-year-old quickly signed with the Canadiens in free agency and gives them a quality option for the top pairing on the right side with Fleury gone and Brook injured. Technically, Gianni Fairbrother isn’t a true newcomer as he had a brief stint with the Rocket last season but this will be his first full season in the pros and he should get an opportunity to lock down a prominent role early on after a strong showing in the preseason with Montreal.
Veteran goaltender Kevin Poulin also has joined the organization although he’s starting in Trois-Rivieres. Cayden Primeau returns and should get the bulk of the workload as Montreal’s goalie of the future while Michael McNiven is also back and should be the second-stringer while having the ability to veto an ECHL loan (only entry-level players can be sent there without consent). At a minimum, he’s a decent insurance policy between the pipes.
After the fiasco in Brampton where the Canadiens basically abandoned them, Montreal operated without a true ECHL affiliate which isn’t ideal. They shared Maine with the Rangers but the closed borders last season left them without a place to loan their extra players.
That isn’t the case this time around as the Trois-Rivieres Lions will make their debut this season. With another affiliate, Laval should be able to shuffle some of their players down there to get in some game action over spending frequent time in the press box; they’ve sent several players on AHL contracts down already plus Montreal prospect Arsen Khisamutdinov. That should prove beneficial to both teams as the Lions should be a fairly competitive team out of the gate with the extra help.
Meanwhile, the addition of Trois-Rivieres also gives Laval an extra pool of players to try to draw from when injuries inevitably strike over trying to find players that aren’t affiliated with other AHL teams. Former Hab prospect Olivier Archambault and QMJHL top defenceman Olivier Galipeau are among the players that could be signed to PTO deals when Laval needs some reinforcements.
As we’ve seen already with the Canadiens, injuries will be a big factor so several players from the Rocket should get chances in Montreal this season.
Up front, Jesse Ylonen had a long look in the preseason and is one of Montreal’s better prospects in Laval. He’s someone that wouldn’t make sense to bring up to play on the fourth line but if an opening in the top nine opens up, he’d have to be considered a contender. If it’s on the fourth line, someone like Rafael Harvey-Pinard should be in the mix. He quickly endeared himself to everyone last season with his hustle and aggression, elements that would serve him well on an NHL fourth line. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him get a look at some point. There will be times where they just want a safe fourth liner and veterans like Lukas Vejdemo and Laurent Dauphin should fit that bill. And, of course, Poehling will get looks with the Canadiens at times as well.
On the back end, Xavier Ouellet remains in the fold and will be considered basically any time an injury arises. A good start from Fairbrother could earn him a look while Belpedio being a right-shot player will work in his favour if one of their righties goes down. One wildcard is Corey Schueneman who earned an NHL contract off a strong performance last season. He’s old for a prospect (26) but as a late-bloomer, he could play his way into the mix for an NHL opportunity.
Between the pipes, it should be Primeau moving up unless it’s a short-term situation. In that situation, promoting McNiven to allow Primeau to keep playing will probably be the smarter play from a development perspective.
For all of the veterans that Laval has brought in, few actually qualify under the definition of a veteran under the rules. The quick version of the rule:
A maximum of five skaters with 320 career professional games played (as of the start of the season) can dress per night. Teams can also dress an additional skater with between 260-319 professional GP as a sixth veteran (more than one in this group can play if there are fewer than five veterans with 320+ GP).
Four players fall under the veteran category – Dea, Bourque, Beaudin, and Dauphin while Martel is in the second category. There is some wiggle room on that front which is nice to have for the purposes of in-season trades or even trying to add someone as an injury replacement.
If you’re looking to see a lot of prospect development this season, Laval isn’t the best place to look as many of Montreal’s better prospects aren’t there. This is a veteran-laden squad as a result, one that has the talent on paper to do some real damage. It’s way too early to make any predictions in terms of how far they could go in the playoffs – roster composition changes frequently occur – but this is definitely a team that has the ability to get to the postseason.