LAVAL, QC – The Laval Rocket are gearing up to tackle the 2021-22 American Hockey League season following an abbreviated but dominant 2020-21 campaign.
The Rocket are a subtly yet wholly different team heading into this year. For starters, the team has a new head coach in Jean-François Houle. Several players that laced up under the bright lights of Montreal’s Bell Centre have either moved on to greener pastures in new North American cities or across the Atlantic Ocean in Europe. Quite a few fan favorites stayed behind to try and recapture the magic the Rocket seemed to have bottled last season. There is an understandable unease among Rocket fans concerning the newest iteration of the Laval Rocket.
LAST SEASON IN REVIEW
The Rocket boasted a 23-9-3-1 record on the 2020-21 season, earning 50 points and winning the Frank Mathers Trophy as the top team in the Canadian Division.
It’s easy to write off last year’s Rocket as having benefited from a lack of diverse competition – they only played four other teams. The great thing about hockey is that it is one of those sports where the box score means nothing, and the context is absolutely everything. The Canadian Division was chock-full of good hockey. Every time a Canadian team met another – regardless of how many times they’d played each other in the month – the game was high-octane and full-intensity. The Rocket dominated teams that could and did, adapt to their style. Wins north of the border were hard-earned, and losses weren’t taken without a fight. The Rocket’s greatest strength was in their cohesion as a team. They were never going to be the most skilled team in the league, but they had the most team chemistry, and they were coached to success.
The season was shortened by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, presenting another unique challenge: the taxi squad. The National Hockey League instituted a creative way to manage rosters in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak or injuries to the main roster that accounted for the various challenges of managing an NHL lineup amid a pandemic that won’t seem to end. A select few players rotated in and out of the Laval dressing room by way of the taxi squad. In addition to the usual business of Rocket players filling gaps on the Montreal Canadiens roster due to trades or injury, the Rocket coaching staff was also the recipient of NHL call-ups following the termination of several of the men behind the Canadiens’ bench.
All of the hard work, blood, and sweat was rewarded by… nothing? There were no playoffs to be played, no Calder Cup to be hoisted. As a consolation prize, the Rocket were awarded the Frank Mathers Trophy as the Kings in the Great White North. That’s not to say the season was without its rewards. 2021 Hobey Baker winner Cole Caufield joined the club to transition into professional hockey from the collegiate level. Habs fans tuned into a single Rocket broadcast en masse to watch Brendan Gallagher and Carey Price suit up to play a conditioning game with an AHL team for the first time since they first cracked the Canadiens’ opening night roster. When the regular season ended, there may have been nothing to look forward to, but that doesn’t mean that the Rocket played meaningless hockey.
- Leading Scorer: Forward Ryan Poehling (25 pts)
- Goals For: 113
- 8th in the league
- Goals Against: 87
- 6th in the league
- PP%: 17.21%
- 21st in the League
- The power play plagued the Rocket all year. Inconsistency and lack of pure goal-scoring ability kept the Rocket from capitalizing on the man advantage.
- The Rocket were only awarded 99 power plays in 2020-21, ranking them 26th of 28 teams that played for power-play opportunities.
- PK%: 82
- 10th in the league
- The Rocket penalty kill wasn’t as snake-bitten as the power play. The foundation for the identity of the team was highly defensive. They were a checking team, more so than anything else. Because they fundamentally lacked a high-powered offensive star, Laval was a team that appeared to play with almost reckless abandon; however, you might be surprised to learn that the Rocket were not the most penalized team last year. They don’t even crack the top ten!
- The Rocket were shorthanded a total of 122 times – good for 13th of the 28 teams.
- Jean-Sebastien Dea, 27, is a native of Laval. He started his career with Pittsburgh, where he spent time with Wilkes-Barre/ Scranton in the AHL and the Wheeling Nailers of the ECHL. He was claimed off waivers by Florida and assigned to Springfield before signing with Buffalo and hanging out in Rochester. Last year, he was a vital member of the taxi squad. Montreal signed Dea as a free agent and assigned him to Laval out of camp. He’s a creative playmaker with a solid shot that can make an impact on special teams. Dea thrives in the lower leagues but is an excellent option to call up in the event of injury.
- Danick Martel, 26, is from Drummondville, QC. He spent the early parts of his career with Philadelphia as a member of the Lehigh Valley Phantoms before being claimed off waivers by Tampa Bay. He bounced around between the Lightning and the Crunch and was traded to Florida, where he was assigned back to the AHL. Martel signed with Laval as a free agent and was assigned to Laval out of camp. He’s an agitator, very visible on the ice, and plays a rambunctious game. Martel is an excellent depth player with surprisingly good scoring abilities. His biggest value is his experience as a young veteran of the league.
- Jean-Christophe Beaudin, 24, is from Longueuil, another suburb of Montreal. He was drafted by Colorado and split his time between the AHL and ECHL before being traded to Ottawa. While with Ottawa, Beaudin was a staple on Belleville’s roster. He signed with Laval and was assigned back to the Rocket out of camp. Beaudin is a natural playmaker with outstanding offensive instincts and a somewhat projectable frame. His patience with the puck and offensive insight makes the teammates he plays with better. He is also a versatile player who can draw in on the left-wing as well as at center.
- Cale Fleury, 22, was drafted and developed by the Montreal Canadiens. Seattle claimed him — along with his brother — in the expansion. Fleury is a hard-hitting, bruiser-type defenseman with good mobility and puck skills. He was a staple on the Laval blueline as he awaited his chance in Montreal. The Rocket haven’t really replaced the qualities that Fleury brings to the team.
- Caufield, 20, spent a brief time in Laval to transition between collegiate and professional hockey. It may seem like a joke to say he is one of Laval’s key losses, but he’s a natural goal-scorer with all of the tenacity to boot. With Caufield on the roster, Laval had a finisher for the power play and had a major offensive threat in their arsenal. The Rocket have added more offensive ability in the offseason, but there is no substitute for raw, natural goal-scoring prowess.
- Joel Bouchard was the head coach of the Rocket for three years. He signed a new contract with the San Diego Gulls, the AHL affiliate of the Anaheim Ducks. Bouchard is arguably the most significant loss of the summer as it was his leadership and coaching that seemed to make the greatest impact on the team’s success. Under Bouchard, players developed and became the best versions of themselves at the AHL and NHL levels. It’s unclear whether the loss of Bouchard means that the Rocket will struggle against tougher competition, but the uncertainty is troubling.
The season opens with the Rocket bouncing between playing at home and on the road against some familiar Canadian opponents – two games against the Belleville Senators and a third against the Manitoba Moose. On October 23, they meet their first non-Canadian foe – the Providence Bruins – on the road. At the end of October, the team settles in for the first homestand of the year. October 27- 30, the Rocket take on the Toronto Marlies and the Rochester Americans at Place Bell. Three consecutive games at home this early into the season is vital to re-establishing the connection to the fans that are allowed back in the arena and re-cementing Place Bell as the Rocket’s home barn. Last year, Laval moved out of the suburbs and into the big city. They took up residence at the Bell Centre — playing consecutive games at home after playing in another arena for so long functions as a kind of hockey housewarming party.
From there, it looks like a regular old schedule. The ones we haven’t seen in a while, where travel isn’t limited to what borders you can cross and games are played between teams in separate divisions. The Rocket will square off against 16 different clubs this season, four times the number of teams they faced last year! The four teams the Rocket are set to take on most often are Belleville, Toronto, Syracuse, and Utica, who they’ll meet in 12, 8, 8, and 6 games, respectively. The travel and variety in the team matchups are long overdue and a welcome change. With varied competition comes elevated competition and a better opportunity to measure Laval by the same yardstick as teams with higher competition last season.
This year, the Rocket play in 24 back-to-back scenarios, with nine involving travel between the first and back halves. This year’s schedule is far and away more challenging than the schedule faced by the Rocket last year. Travel between two countries, opponents they haven’t played in over a year – or ever, considering Abbotsford – and a longer season are all going to converge to test the strength of the Rocket. And, this year, there are playoffs on the line.
TOP STORYLINES FOR 2021-22
As previously mentioned, the Rocket have a new coaching staff. That alone makes things more than a little uncertain for the fate of the team this season. The Rocket’s success or failure will directly correlate with the success or failure of the new coaches. Watch out for the bumps in the road and the growing pains as the team adjusts to the new equilibrium.
Also on the watch list: the schedule. It seems like such a small thing – the schedule is longer, and the competition is more plentiful. When you haven’t had to travel or meet teams outside your division for the better part of two years, that small change will have an impact. Whether it turns out to be a change for the better is entirely up to the players.
PREDICTION SURE TO GO RIGHT
Ryan Poehling is going to figure it out. It’s his “show me” season; he has to put it together. Last year, Poehling was the Rocket’s leading scorer, but that does not mean he was the best player on the ice. For the first half of 2020-21, he very much was not. When he finally did find his groove, you were hard-pressed to find a player that looked better than Poehling. He was always going to be a project; spending as much time in the AHL as he has is not a surprise here. The surprise is that he still seems to have difficulty settling into his role for the year. However, I predict that he needs a shorter adjustment time this season and finds that extra gear that exists, but he cannot seem to access it.
PREDICTION SURE TO GO WRONG
The Rocket are actually a good team and last season wasn’t a fluke or purely a result of good coaching. Like the relentless optimist I am, I say the Rocket will make the playoffs for the first time in the club’s existence and make a serious run for the Calder Cup. It certainly isn’t outside of the realm of possibility. There’s talent there, and if Houle can get the most out of his team, they’re built like their parent club – for the playoffs.
The Rocket are a wildly different team than the one we saw pummel the other four Canadian clubs in 2020-21 – you come to expect that with the AHL. Whether or not the differences can coalesce into another winning formula remains to be seen. The Rocket begin regular season play on Friday, October 15, on home ice at Place Bell, their home barn. The wait is all but over.
How will the Rocket fare this season? Will they find themselves on the outside looking in at the playoff bracket, become a victim of the league’s new playoff format, go deep in the playoffs, or win the Calder Cup? Let us know your thoughts.
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