by Andrew J. Ferraro || AHL On The Beat Archive
Houston Aeros defenseman Maxim Noreau and the rest of his teammates were in a scoreless battle with the Peoria Rivermen on Nov. 30 at the Toyota Center in Houston.
With both teams in the middle of the still tightly contested West Division, neither seemed ready to give an inch — much less the go-ahead goal — that both squads knew would turn out to be the game winner.
The Aeros got a break just 35 seconds into overtime when Micki DuPont was sent to the penalty box for slashing. Fifteen seconds later, the Aeros sent the home crowd home happy when Noreau took a pass from veteran Steve Kelly and hit a booming slap shot into the back of the cage.
That is when things started to click for Noreau, an offensive-minded defenseman who failed to record a point in his first 10 AHL games. Noreau hit the All-Star break with five goals and five assists and is playing better and better all the time.
Aeros head coach Kevin Constantine said just a little confidence is all Noreau, a 20-year-old native of Montreal, needed.
“He’s a young player and he is growing. I think he was nervous maybe his first 10 or 15 games, but his confidence has gone way up,” Constantine said after the Aeros posted a 3-1 at San Antonio on Nov. 11. “Something else he has had to overcome this year is being a right-shot guy playing left defense. He played a lot of that last year, so it was an easier switch for him.
“But that is still a big adjustment and I am very impressed that he has been able to make it.”
Position switches aside, Noreau did start off a bit slow offensively, but even in games he does not record a point, he is sound defensively and feeds off the style of hockey the Aeros employ.
After starting the year with the Aeros, Noreau was sent to the team’s ECHL affiliate in Beaumont, Texas. It amounted to just a brief two-game stint, but Noreau got some additional time on the power play and made the most of it.
In two games with Texas, the ECHL’s best team, Noreau recorded three assists before getting recalled to Houston. With him, he brought a different perspective and the knowledge that he belonged in professional hockey.
“I was struggling and I didn’t get a point I don’t think until my (10th game),” Noreau said. “And I consider myself an offensive defenseman, so that was kind of hard for me. But going down there, it gave me a chance to play some more on the power play and getting some points down there really helped.”
It’s hard to really ever know what is going on inside the mind of an athlete, but since that game-winning goal against the Rivermen, Noreau has not only played better defensively, he is moving the puck with authority and the points are coming more regularly.
In his next game — Dec. 1 vs. Grand Rapids — Noreau scored another power play goal in an overtime win over the Griffins. Then, in the 12 games between Dec. 22 vs. Springfield and an overtime loss to Toronto on Jan. 18, Noreau put up seven more points.
During that stretch, he scored his only even strength goal on Dec. 28 at Quad City and had goals in back-to-back games against Manitoba and San Antonio on Jan. 10 and 11, respectively.
Noreau hopes this will lead to more scoring, and deep down he hopes his recent play with the Aeros will earn him an NHL contract.
“I don’t expect to get it, but I hope for it,” Noreau said. “I have just been trying to work hard every day and try to get better. I am still a young guy; I am only 20 years old, so all I need to worry about it doing what I can do every day to get better and to help this team get better.
“Hopefully people will recognize what I am doing and see my progression, and the fact that I am young obviously helps. I hope for it, but it’s not something that I expect at this point.”
A teammate that Noreau looks up to is veteran forward Serge Payer. Payer was signed by the Minnesota Wild to provide depth for that team as a checking forward and to help the younger guys in the system make the adjustment to the AHL and professional hockey in general.
Payer did not flinch when asked if he thought Noreau has earned an NHL contract.
“I think (the Wild) should do that and they should do that as soon as possible too,” said Payer. “I love the guy both as a person and as a hockey player. He is a quality person, a quality young man. He has a lot of potential and he is going to play, if not at the National Hockey level as a pro for a long time. He has the attributes as a player to play in the National Hockey League.
“He is a great quarterback on the power play, he’s got a great vision and he has the skills to put up some real good numbers. He moves the puck really well and I hope that the people in this organization or another organization can see that and give him an opportunity.”
Noreau was equally complimentary of Payer.
“He is a proven veteran in this league and he has really taken care of his body,” Noreau said. “He is someone that is getting closer to his thirties and he is probably one of the most in-shape guys on this team. That just goes to show that you have to work hard if you want to stay in this business.
“He sets a good example and I think a lot of the younger guys know that they should follow the example he sets.”
Noreau said one of the biggest adjustments to playing professional hockey is just seeing how everyone on both sides of the puck works every night to take care of themselves both physically and mentally.
“I think the biggest difference between (pro hockey) and juniors is that in juniors you can take a night off and still have a decent game,” said Noreau. “But you can’t do that in the pros because you know the other team is going to be ready to go and you know the other 19 guys on the other side are going to be ready to go.”
Only time will tell if Noreau continues to improve and earns an NHL contract and a chance to compete for the Minnesota Wild, or another organization for that matter.
This year he won’t match the 65 and 70 respective points he put up in his final two years of juniors with the Victoriaville Tigres (QMJHL). Those numbers are, however, indicative of the player he hopes he can become.
But all the while, Noreau is quietly commanding a better deal. An NHL contract is something he doesn’t expect, but he is working hard to get it, and when he does it won’t be taken for granted.