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Developing on the farm

By Marc Dumont, special contributor

When the AHL season was put on hold, the Laval Rocket stood out as one of the hottest teams in the league, losing just two of their final 10 games, including a dominant 3-0 victory in their final game of the season versus their rivals, the North Division-leading Belleville Senators.

While the goal for Joel Bouchard and his coaching staff is to establish stability for Canadiens prospects at the AHL level, the nature of the job is anything but. There are callups, reassignments, injuries, and trades to balance, all the while focusing on individual player development, a busy schedule, oh, and winning hockey games, too.

Essentially, you’re coaching for the weekend rather than the end of the month, because there’s no feasible way to anticipate the endless flow of player movement in the AHL. And even then, oftentimes weekend plans will fall through.

And once in a blue moon, a pandemic will put the brakes on a season that was filled with promise and excitement.

But with chaos comes opportunity, especially for an organization in the midst of a youth movement.

With the influx of draft picks and exciting prospects joining the Canadiens organization, over 90 players have donned the Laval Rocket jersey in the last two years. The staff, including assistant coaches Daniel Jacob, Alexandre Burrows, and Marco Marciano, have developed individual gameplans for each and every player, but there’s only so much you can do with a finite number of hours in a day.

The pandemic finally allowed Bouchard and company to take a deep breath, evaluate the last two years, and take stock of the progress from not only the players, but the overall program as well.

“The way this program has grown over the last two years is extremely exciting,” said Bouchard. “We’re now entering a phase where we can rely on a core group of players. Young, exciting players. We were playing fantastic hockey when the league was put on hold, which speaks to the development of players, as well as the team-first approach we’re building.

“But the work is far from done.”

In reality, the work is never done in the AHL, but the Rocket have managed to establish a modus operandi that puts the onus on hard work and dedication, rather than individual accolades. It’s a tough sell for some players, but it’s also the best way to establish a winning culture. In many ways, learning to be a professional hockey player is just as important as putting points on the board.

“My job is to give the best I have to make sure these guys reach their potential,” said Bouchard. “But it’s a process. There are no overnight results. Take Josh Brook for example. He was a completely different player from where he started the season and where he ended up. It takes time, and we’re here to make sure everyone reaches the next level at the right time.”

Those keeping a close eye on Brook throughout the season will agree. Once he found his rhythm, which came with a healthy dose of confidence, his gameplay immediately improved.

We tend to paint athletes with a broad stroke, invoking potential, certain benchmarks, and in most cases, very high expectations. But behind every hockey player in Laval is a young man looking to find his way, not only on the ice, but also in life.

Some players need to be pushed hard. Others need to be coaxed gently. Ultimately, the goal is the same, but the approach is always evolving.

That’s where the individual game plans come into play.

“They’re individuals, right?” said Bouchard. “That means we must work with them on an individual basis, first and foremost. You need to talk to them. It’s that simple. But that’s just the first step. When things are going right, you need to work on getting better, when things are going wrong, you need to identify the issues and solve them.”

And that goes beyond the first-round draft picks. There’s no room for favoritism in Laval. Third-overall draft choices and free agent signings all receive the same treatment.

“I’ve never been one of those coaches that only focuses on two or three guys,” said Bouchard. “That makes no sense to me. They’re all my boys. You make individual plans for the player development, but at the end of the day, they all contribute to the team in various ways. If you only focus on a few players, you’re doing it wrong.”

Ask any player on the roster about Bouchard’s coaching style, and the first thing that comes up is his intensity. The second, which is usually paired with intensity, is his ability to communicate clearly, concisely, and honestly. He mends the line between coach and mentor, putting his players at ease when it comes to their role on the team. In the end, most athletes simply want to know what’s expected of them.

Unless it’s taking place on the ice and involves vulcanized rubber, Bouchard doesn’t like to play games.

“I’m not smart enough to play games,” he jokes. “When I’m happy, they know. When I’m annoyed, they know. No schemes, no games. If you start to play those games, you’ll get yourself in trouble, quickly. But the straight-forward approach also means you need to leave emotions at the door. I don’t carry any of them into the next practice or the next game, and neither do my players. You say what you need to say, work it out, and move on.

“Transparency is key.”

With clear and concise directives, prospects are able to focus on the most important aspects of their development. It allows them to be honest with their flaws and strengths, and work towards a common goal with the coaching staff.

The path to NHL success runs through Laval, and for many of the prospects putting on the Rocket jersey, they will receive their first taste of professional coaching from Bouchard. He wants to make that experience as fruitful, and realistic, as possible.

“They know I’ll be demanding, but they also know they can come talk to me at any time,” said Bouchard. “They learn to grow through their mistakes and errors.”

Many of these players will go on to make an impact with the Canadiens. They will grow up together in Laval, forming bonds that will hopefully bear fruit with the parent club, and create chemistry that will last well into their NHL careers. But before they get to that point, they need to focus on the task at hand.

“Mistakes aren’t necessarily a bad thing. We need to let young players make mistakes in the AHL. It’s a development league, after all. They can’t be afraid of it, but it also has to be addressed. Take [Jesperi] Kotkaniemi, for example. We ran a lot of video sessions with him, and by the end of the year, he improved by leaps and bounds.”

Preparing players to take the next step takes honesty. It takes hard work. It takes the right group of people.

And most importantly, it takes patience.