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Montreal’s new AHL affiliate, the Laval Rocket, play their first game on Friday night.  Here are some of the key questions surrounding the team as they head into their inaugural season.

What is the AHL veteran rule and how will it impact the Rocket?

For the past several years, the AHL veteran rule has been completely irrelevant for Montreal’s AHL teams as GM Marc Bergevin had little interest in actually stocking the farm teams with multiple quality veterans.  That isn’t the case this season and as a result, they’re starting the year off in a situation where they’ll actually have too many.

As the AHL is first and foremost a development league, there are rules in place to ensure that the majority of players aren’t proven veterans.  Thus, there are restrictions on how many veteran skaters can dress each night which are as follows:

– Veteran, minimum 320 pro GP (AHL, NHL, some European Professional league) as of the end of 2016-17 [Max of 5 skaters in this category can dress per game]
– Veteran, between 260-319 pro GP [1 skater in this category can be classed as a development player]

(Qualifying leagues towards the veteran GP calculation: NHL, AHL, NLA, Czech Extraliga, Slovak Extraliga, KHL, SHL, SM-liiga, and DEL.  Only regular season games count towards the calculation.)

With the recent trade of Andreas Martinsen, that eliminated one of the surplus veteran spots but there is still a surplus.  Here are the players who qualify for veteran status:

320+ GP: Nicolas Deslauriers, Eric Gelinas, Peter Holland, Jakub Jerabek, Matt Taormina, Chris Terry
260-319 GP: Byron Froese

As a result, someone in that top group will be sitting every game as long as the team is fully healthy.  (There are bound to be injuries in Laval and Montreal as the season progresses so it’s not likely that this will be an issue for too long.)

What newcomers are likely to have the most impact?

The addition of Taormina gives Laval one of the top point-producing defencemen in the league and with it, a much more threatening power play.  I think Holland can be a legitimate front line centre and with Terry and likely Nikita Scherbak on the wings, that could be one of the top front lines in the AHL.  (Michael McCarron is getting the first look there but I expect Holland will get that spot before too long.)  Froese surprised many by being arguably the last cut up front in training camp and quietly was among the top goal-getters in the league last season.

Those are all veterans so they’re supposed to have the biggest impact.  Among the younger newcomers, Martin Reway is the ultimate wildcard.  He has the offensive skill to be a dominant player but there’s really no idea on how quickly (or slowly) he’ll get back into playing form after missing all of last season.  Once he’s healthy, Noah Juulsen will probably take on a big role as well right away.

Which returning player is primed for a breakout season?

I don’t think he’s going to have a big jump in his point production but Brett Lernout should be poised to have a much bigger impact this season.  The trade of Zach Redmond earlier this week frees up a full-time top-four spot for him which should allow him to play more of an all-around game than just being a stay-at-home physical player.  It’s his last season of waiver exemption so this will be his last real opportunity to show that he’s ready for a full-time NHL roster spot and I expect Lernout will make the most of it.

What weaknesses does the team have?

After loading up with veteran talent, Sylvain Lefebvre has a much better roster to work with than he has in prior years but there are still some holes.  They aren’t the deepest team defensively, especially with Juulsen out to start the season which has left them in a spot where at least two of Simon Bourque, Stefan Leblanc, and Tom Parisi have to play and they don’t have anyone to call up from Brampton.

I’m also a bit concerned with Zach Fucale between the pipes.  I understand (and agree with) the decision to have Michael McNiven start in Brampton in order to maximize his playing time but we’ve seen Lefebvre in the past give a lot of starts to backup goalies even when he has one of the better starters league-wide at his disposal.  Fucale’s propensity for bad goals was problematic in St. John’s two years ago and again with Brampton last year (though yes, he had some games where he was dominant).  Knowing that Lefebvre will overuse the backup once again as he always does, I’d feel more comfortable with someone without as many ebbs and flows in his game as Fucale.

What are the strengths for the Rocket heading into the season?

On the opposite side of Fucale is Charlie Lindgren.  His overall numbers weren’t spectacular last season but he was playing behind a defensive corps that was mediocre at best and that’s an area that has improved at least a little bit this season (Gelinas and Taormina are good offensive players but not as good in their own end).  He’s the type of goalie that’s capable of stealing games and he’ll be plenty motivated as he tries to prove that he’s ready for the full-time number two role with the Habs and that can only bode well for the team.

As a result of getting everyone through waivers, Laval has an enviable group of forwards that have shown they can produce at the AHL level.  Add that to what they hope will be continued improvement from Scherbak and Daniel Audette plus some production from Reway and they will have the potential to have three lines that can score.  That will change as injuries and recalls strike as always but they find themselves starting in much better shape this season than years past which will have them better equipped to deal with losing players as the season progresses.

Is this a playoff team?

If Lefebvre can’t guide this team to the playoffs, something is terribly wrong as this is the best roster he has had to work with by far.  I won’t go as far as saying they should walk away with the division (the Marlies are always a threat as is Syracuse while Rochester has really invested in strengthening their team) but barring a boatload of injuries, this should easily be a team that gets into the postseason at the very least.  Montreal’s prospects haven’t seen much playoff time in the past but that will change in 2017-18.