Despite playoff miss, Houle optimistic about Rocket’s trajectory

Photo: Laurent Corbeil

Patrick Williams, Features Writer

Optimism for the next chapter of the Laval Rocket is high, and head coach J.F. Houle wants to be a part of that future.

Houle, who concluded his third season behind the Laval bench, expressed interest in returning next season when he met with reporters at the club’s break-up day at the end of the regular season. After reaching the Calder Cup Playoffs in his first two seasons, including a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2022, the Rocket missed the cut this year. But Houle can point to the work that he and his coaching staff did in preparing players for the Montreal Canadiens.

“We’re going to have some discussions here,” Houle told the assembled media regarding his next step with Montreal management. “We’re going to take a little step back and evaluate everything, and hopefully we have some discussions, and we’ll see what happens in the future.

“I’ve been here three years. I like being here. I think we’ve done a good job… We did really well with the players. The players liked being here.”

With a strong prospect depth already in Laval and more talent on the way, Houle wants to continue his work with the organization’s future. Houle pointed out that managing an AHL club brings a unique set of challenges. The Canadiens have taken a more developmentally oriented approach, and Houle has had to put on a different type of coaching hat, especially this season.

AHL All-Rookie defenseman Logan Mailloux joined Jayden Struble, Joshua Roy and Emil Heineman as Rocket players to make their NHL debut with Montreal this season. Arber XhekajJustin Barron and Mitchell Stephens spent valuable time in Laval while also playing significant roles with the Canadiens. Forwards Sean Farrell, Riley Kidney, Xavier Simoneau and William Trudeau ranked among the young faces playing for Houle this season. Jakub Dobeš helped to keep Laval in playoff contention until the final weekend of the season, tying for the AHL lead among goaltenders with 51 appearances.

Top prospects in defenseman David Reinbacher, the fifth overall pick in last June’s NHL Draft, and forward Luke Tuch, a second-rounder in 2020, were among the late-season additions to the Laval roster.

Montreal’s roster included Cole Caufield, Rafaël Harvey-Pinard, Cayden Primeau, Michael Pezzetta and Jesse Ylönen, all players who had trained under Houle’s guidance prior to this season.

“When you have a young core, there’s a learning curve,” Houle said. “The only way to get the learning curve going, to go upward and learn, is to play games. I told everybody that it was going to be hard before Christmas, and it was, and I said after Christmas we’re going to be better. That’s the learning curve of having a young team that’s not at maturity.”

And after managing five wins in their first 22 games (5-12-3-2), the Rocket put together a solid final four months with the second-best record in the North Division (28-19-3-0, 59 points) from Dec. 9 on. Laval’s prospects were able to play playoff-style games down the stretch as they made their postseason bid before they were eliminated in their second-to-last game of the season. And the crowds at Place Bell seem to provide a playoff atmosphere every night.

They did it all amid a string of NHL recalls, injuries, and losing talent to midseason departures.

“The American Hockey League is a different animal,” Houle explained. “That’s why you go day-by-day, and you don’t plan for next year because anything can happen at any time. Our job as coaches is to manage the day-to-day. There’s a saying: ‘If you don’t see the white of his eyes, don’t count on him.’

“I think we made some headway with our team. Players are improving. Players like to be here.”