As usual, it was a summer of turnover for the Laval Rocket. However, rather than skewing toward a veteran-laden team, the one that takes to the ice tonight for their opener will be a much younger group.
First, here’s an overview of the key newcomers and departures.
F Lias Andersson (Ontario, AHL)
F Joel Armia (Montreal, NHL)
F Jared Davidson (Seattle, WHL)
G Jakub Dobes (Ohio State, NCAA)
F Sean Farrell (Harvard, NCAA)
D Brady Keeper (Abbotsford, AHL)
F Riley Kidney (Gatineau, QMJHL)
F Nathan Legare (Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, AHL)
D Gustav Lindstrom (Detroit, NHL)
F Philippe Maillet (Metallurg Magnitogorsk, KHL)
D Logan Mailloux (London, OHL)
G Strauss Mann (San Jose, AHL)
F Filip Mesar (Kitchener, OHL)
D Tobie Paquette-Bisson (Ontario, AHL)
F Joshua Roy (Sherbrooke, QMJHL)
F Peter Abbandonato (Chicago, AHL)
D Frederic Allard (Lulea, SHL)
D Justin Barron (Montreal, NHL)
D Madison Bowey (Dinamo Minsk, KHL)
D Tory Dello (Chicago, AHL)
F Pierrick Dube (Washington)
D Otto Leskinen (Tappara, SM-liiga)
F Danick Martel (HPK, SM-liiga)
G Kevin Poulin (retirement)
G Cayden Primeau (Montreal, NHL)
F Jesse Ylonen (Montreal, NHL)
There were several other new players signed and others who left but the unlisted newcomers project to be depth pieces and/or will start in the ECHL while the unlisted departures also played depth roles last season.
Looking at the list of arrivals, two things stand out. There is an influx of offensive talent which is good news for a team that lacked firepower for long stretches last season. However, the kicker is that the majority of the incoming skill players are entry-level pieces that will be getting their first taste of professional action (or close to it). That means that there is quite likely to be some growing pains, especially in the early going of the season.
While Jakub Dobes technically was with the team late last season, he didn’t see any game action so, for all intents and purposes, he’s new to the roster. After two very strong seasons at Ohio State, the Habs decided that he was ready to turn pro early so it’s fair to say that he’ll play a prominent role.
At the moment, the backup job belongs to Strauss Mann. He had a dominant final two college years before playing in Sweden for a season. That, then, earned him an entry-level deal with the Sharks where he split time between the AHL and ECHL last year. If Cayden Primeau is able to make it down to Laval at some point after going through waivers, Mann would then be heading for Trois-Rivieres. Zacharie Emond is also with the team for now but is likely to be with the Lions once their season gets underway later this month.
This should be a strong spot for Laval throughout the year. William Trudeau returns after a strong rookie year and should be a two-way threat. Mailloux, Nicolas Beaudin, and Mattias Norlinder give the Rocket some viable offensive options. (Miguel Tourigny, too, when he’s up with the team.)
Among the defensive options, Lindstrom wasn’t exactly expected to be with the Rocket to start the season but after clearing waivers in camp, he should help anchor the right side of the back end. That was originally expected to be Keeper’s role. When injuries arise and both are playing, they’ll have a couple of steady options on the back end to help offset what is a relatively inexperienced group otherwise.
On the depth side, Paquette-Bisson is a capable experienced piece who will be pushing Jayden Struble for playing time. Olivier Galipeau is also around after splitting last year between Laval and Trois-Rivieres although he’s on the outside looking in at a spot for now. All things considered, this is a pretty deep group.
Day One Depth Chart (based on the projected opening lineup)
Norlinder – Mailloux
Trudeau – Lindstrom
Struble – Paquette-Bisson
Beaudin – Keeper
Let’s talk about the experienced newcomers first. Lias Andersson, a former high first-rounder by Jeff Gorton and Nick Bobrov in New York, made it through waivers and should find himself in a top offensive role as he had with Ontario last season even though he’s starting a bit lower in the lineup with the extra depth they currently have. Philippe Maillet was a strong producer in the KHL and will also be in an impact role. Yes, even if that means a prospect plays a little lower at the start; he didn’t sign to play in the bottom six.
Joshua Roy, Riley Kidney, Jared Davidson, and Filip Mesar will all look to make the transition from playing junior to the pros. That’s something that doesn’t always come easy, going from being a top player there to a lesser role in the minors and especially early with a full depth chart, playing time will be somewhat limited for some of them at least.
Offensively, for me, the biggest wild card isn’t any of those rookies. Instead, it’s Sean Farrell. He had a dominant showing at Harvard last season, basically forcing Montreal to sign him. But in his NHL action late in the year and training camp, he got pushed around a bit too much which is understandable. The AHL isn’t a soft league by any stretch either, however. He has the skills to be an impact threat but can he navigate the high level of physicality? If so, the offensive potential for this group gets much higher.
The last couple of cuts from the Habs in training camp are also intriguing. Emil Heineman made quite an impact late last season and after making a decent run at a spot with Montreal, he’s likely to play a prominent all-situations role. Then there’s Joel Armia. This is not an ideal spot for him to be in as he’s with a team that will be prioritizing development. In some organizations, he’d go down, play on the top line, and try to build some momentum for a recall. He’s not going to get that with the Rocket although he’s still likely to be an early recall similar to Rem Pitlick’s situation from last year.
From a checking perspective, most of the players in that role from a year ago are back. Mitchell Stephens should anchor a two-way line while Gabriel Bourque, Lucas Condotta, and Brandon Gignac all return as well. Given J-F Houle’s comments about Jan Mysak’s perceived limited offensive upside, it’s fair to suggest he’ll be counted on defensively as well, especially after a decent showing in training camp. We still haven’t even hit everyone on the roster yet. Again, this is a deeper group than before and early on, a lot of game-to-game roster turnover is going to happen.
Day One Depth Chart (based on the projected opening lineup)
Heineman – Maillet – Roy
Kidney – Stephens – Armia
Farrell – Gignac – Andersson
Simoneau – Condotta – Bourque
Davidson – Gignac – Legare
McKay – Mesar
The AHL has a limitation on veterans since it is, after all, a development league. Basically, a team is limited to dressing a maximum of five players who have played over 320 NHL, AHL, or elite-level European regular season games. Additionally, one other ‘veteran-exempt’ player is permitted to dress whose games played total is between 260-319 games in those leagues.
One benefit of having a really young roster is that Laval has some wiggle room on this front. Here’s who qualifies in each category:
320+ games: Andersson, Armia, Bourque, Maillet
260-319 games: Stephens
Mesar’s Future: Filip Mesar made it clear a year ago that he wanted no part of playing in the OHL. He then went and had a year where it’s fair to say he underachieved which didn’t exactly bolster his case to move up a level. For now, the Habs are indulging his desire to play in the pros but if he’s at the bottom of the depth chart, he’s not going to be playing much to start. Is that what’s best for his development? He’s going to need to stand out quite quickly when he does get his opportunities if he wants to avoid going back to junior.
Goaltending: While Jakub Dobes played a lot in college, the day-to-day grind of the minors is a bit different and will take some getting adjusted to. In that sense, having a capable second goalie in the mix would have made some sense. Strauss Mann isn’t proven in that role by any stretch. A platoon with Cayden Primeau would have been ideal in that sense but for now, Dobes should get the bulk of the workload. If Primeau doesn’t make it down and Dobes falters early on, it wouldn’t be shocking to see them look to an unsigned veteran (there are a few kicking around) to help stabilize things.
Youth Adaptability: Everyone’s familiar with the term ‘rookie mistakes’. There are going to be a lot of them early on. That simply can’t be avoided on a team that has this many young players who are set to ideally play prominent roles. How many games is that going to cost them early on? From a depth and talent perspective, this is a strong group but how quickly can they navigate the growing pains that are coming? It’s better in the long run, no doubt, but it’d be nice to have player development not necessarily slowing down victories.
Playoffs? Is this a playoff-calibre team? On paper, it should be. Of course, a team can look great on paper and then lose a bunch of players to injuries and recalls. If the youngsters can adapt quickly and take on important roles, this is a group that should be capable of not only making the postseason but also doing some damage in there. If they struggle and it’s another year full of injuries and recalls though? The depth of this group should still be good enough to sneak into a play-in spot but that might be the best-case scenario at that point.