my test line

Rocket rookies ride ups and downs of rollercoaster season

Growing pains during 2023-24 campaign build resilience, character for youth in Laval

By Evan Milner @CanadiensMTL /

MONTREAL – The city’s La Ronde amusement park doesn’t begin operations until mid-May, but the rollercoaster experience was open year-round for the Laval Rocket, who narrowly missed the AHL playoffs for the first time in three years.

Like the Goliath, a turbulent up-and-down 2023-24 season was to be expected for the Canadiens’ AHL affiliate. As a matter of fact, Rocket head coach Jean-François Houle called it at the Habs’ 2023 development camp last July, predicting there would be “harsh times in the beginning of the season,” for the inexperienced roster. And there were. Laval’s lowly 1-6-1 start to the year was humbling for the young, but talented group.

However, the Rocket bench boss remained optimistic for a better second half. In the same breath that day in July, Houle stated, “after Christmas, I think they’re going to learn a lot from the League, and they’ll be better from it.” And they were. Montreal’s farm team climbed to the top of the rollercoaster and reached its peak on Jan. 24, the end date of a 10-game stretch that saw the Rocket go 8-1-1 coming out of the holiday break.

From there, the ebbs and flows of Laval’s season continued but to lesser extremes. The lows were never as low, the highs never as high, and it wasn’t until the team’s penultimate game of the season that the joyride crash-landed when the Rocket were officially eliminated from the Calder Cup playoff race.

But this season was about more than just playoffs; it was about balancing immediate success with the long-term growth of the organization. Houle and his staff were tasked with developing a young core – including multiple shoe-in future NHLers – while trying to win games and doing it all the ‘right way.’

“You want to make sure your players develop properly and to do so, you need to put them in certain scenarios so that the player gets experience in different game situations, which isn’t always easy,” said Houle during his end-of-season press conference.

Goaltender Jakub Dobes, defenseman Logan Mailloux and forward Joshua Roy were among a group of players that were strapping into the ride for the first time as rookies in the AHL.

“When you have a young core, there’s a learning curve [and] the only way to get the learning curve to go upward is to play games,” outlined Houle.

So, they did. Dobes played 51 games for the Rocket (tied for the most among AHL goalies); Mailloux skated in all 72 outings for Laval; and Roy made 41 AHL appearances, to go along with 23 in the NHL.

As Martin St-Louis often emphasizes, experience is invaluable and cannot be purchased. While it’s challenging to quantify the value of a rookie season in monetary terms, some of the Rocket’s young players can say they got their money’s worth, while others will aim to capitalize on their experiences and strive for a more successful campaign in 2024-25.

Mailloux is one of the players who cashed in on a solid freshman year. The 20-year-old led all AHL rookie blue-liners with 47 points (14G, 33A) and finished third among all defensemen league wide. Moreover, the 2021 first-round pick was named an AHL All-Star in 2023-24 and made his NHL debut on April 16 against the Detroit Red Wings.

“It was fun. I was just trying to take it day-by-day here, show up and get a little bit better every day,” Mailloux said about his season with the Rocket during his end-of-year media availability. “You’re not going to make leaps and bounds daily or weekly or monthly even, but I feel like I just wanted to come in and get a little bit better every day.”

Dobes is another who made strides in his rookie campaign. The Czech netminder owned a 24-18-6 record, to go along with a 2.93 goals-against average and a .906 save percentage. When asked at his end-of-season press conference, Houle was quick to name the 22-year-old goaltender as the player whose progress impressed him the most. After allowing three or more goals in 11 of his first 13 starts to his AHL career, Dobes conceded three or more tallies only 13 other times in his remaining 38 games this season.

“I’m not really disappointed that the [struggles] happened,” admitted Dobes on locker cleanout day in Laval. “I feel like that was a big key for me to be a better hockey player. It’s about the progress. I’m not a finished hockey player. I think it was good that it happened. I needed to struggle, and I needed to find my feet again. I feel like this season was really beneficial for me to be a better goaltender.”

Roy went up-and-down between Laval and Montreal as the season played out. After a blistering start to his AHL career with 18 points in his first 14 games, the 6-foot, 186-pound forward went seven games without a point, raising doubts about his NHL readiness.

However, the 20-year-old quickly regained his form and was recalled by the Canadiens in January, where he put any and all doubts to bed. In 23 games with the Habs, the product of St-Georges-de-Beauce, QC contributed nine points (4G, 5A) and more importantly, looked like he belonged. Now, Roy hopes to cement his status as a full-time NHLer.

“Getting a taste of the NHL makes me want to go back and that’s my goal when I arrive at training camp next season,” he told reporters on April 21.

As the season progressed, more youth came to Place Bell. David Reinbacher joined from HC Kloten in the Swiss National League, posting five points (2G, 3A) in his 11-game stint with the Rocket. Then, Luke Tuch and Florian Xhekaj arrived and were able to dip their toes in the AHL waters, playing two and three games respectively before season’s end – a feat Houle doesn’t take lightly.

“The experience that a young player can get out of the seven or 10 games –– look what it did for [Jayden] Struble last year. Struble was with us for six or seven games, had confidence, came back this year, had a good camp, started with us and played in the NHL,” said Houle. “You can’t underestimate one, two, seven, 10 games that a rookie can get. You cannot. It’s valuable and it prepares them for the following year, there’s no question in my mind.”

Reinbacher seemingly agrees.

“For me, every game is competitive. I play every game for something, no matter the standings. I took every game as a competition, as a new challenge, as a new game to show my game and for it to be my best performance” explained the Austrian defenseman. “It was a really nice experience getting to a team trying to make a playoff push. They took me with a warm welcome and I was really happy with it,” he added.

Developing through winning is, in Houle’s words, easier than developing through losing, and with 33 wins this season, the Rocket rookies tasted their fair share of success. However, beyond the results, the twisting and turning paths of Laval’s seventh season in franchise history could yield more value in bringing the future of the Canadiens’ organization to greater heights.