📝 by Patrick Williams
Not that Laval Rocket head coach J-F Houle usually needs much prompting to talk hockey, but he can hardly contain his words when the discussion turns to do-everything forward Rafaël Harvey-Pinard.
“I can’t talk enough about this guy,” said Houle, fully aware that he was beginning a long reply following Saturday’s 5-1 home win against the Hershey Bears.
“This guy’s awesome. The details of his game are amazing. He’s the heart and soul of our team, and that’s one of the reasons why we gave him an “A” at a young age at the beginning of the year. He shows leadership on the ice the way he plays and in the locker room, even though he’s not super vocal. The guys look up to him because he works so hard. He never takes a shift off, this guy.
“He opened my eyes, and I’m sure he’s opening the eyes of a lot of fans and people in the organization.”
The 23-year-old Harvey-Pinard is a coach’s dream even though 31 teams passed him over back-to-back years in the National Hockey League Draft before the Montreal Canadiens finally took a chance on him as a seventh-round pick in 2019.
Harvey-Pinard produced an 85-point (40 goals, 45 assists) regular season captaining Rouyn-Noranda in 2018-19 before piling on another 27 points (13 goals, 14 assists) in postseason competition as the team won the Memorial Cup championship. A year later, this time the captain with Chicoutimi in his overage season, he followed up with 78 points (34 goals, 44 assists) in a 62-game pandemic-shortened effort.
Former Laval head coach Joël Bouchard, now leading the San Diego Gulls, doled out plenty of praise during Harvey-Pinard’s 2020-21 rookie campaign in the American Hockey League. Harvey-Pinard finished with 20 points (nine goals, 11 assists) in 36 games for the Canadian Division regular-season champion Rocket.
Now Houle, who came to the Rocket this year following six seasons as a Bakersfield Condors assistant coach, has similarly embraced a player who first and foremost is defensively responsible but has found an emerging scoring touch. Playing the left side of a line with veterans Jean-Sébastien Dea and Kevin Roy, Harvey-Pinard dished out two assists and scored a first-period goal as the Rocket defeated the visiting Hartford Wolf Pack, 7-4, on Friday night.
The following afternoon against Hershey, his second-period power-play goal broke open the game for Laval as he took first-star honors. Going into play this week with a five-game goal streak and a seven-game point streak (five goals, five assists), he also holds the team scoring lead with 34 points (15 goals, 19 assists) and owns a plus/minus rating of plus-18 through 49 games.
“He’s always in front of the net,” Houle emphasized. “Watch him play. He takes a beating in front of the net, and that’s where you score goals. And that’s why he’s got a lot of success.”
Harvey-Pinard has made an impression on Rocket netminder Kevin Poulin as well.
“You see him on the ice,” Poulin said, “he’s an intelligent player. He takes care of the puck. He plays hard. He skates well, [and] he goes in front of the net and disturbs the opponent, so that’s a good factor for us.”
“I think offense starts with defense,” Harvey-Pinard said. “When you play [well] in your zone, that’s how you can have offense. Right now for our line, I think we’re doing a pretty good job of getting out the puck very fast, and after that we have good chances offensively because of that.
“I think we’re all different players, and we can play both in our zone and the offensive zone, too. It’s fun to play with them, and I think we have good communication. We have a good chemistry.”
This weekend’s work pushed the Rocket into second place in the North Division with a record of 28-21-3-0 (.567), a single percentage point ahead of the third-place Toronto Marlies. On Wednesday they face a visit from the rival Belleville Senators, a club engaged in its own playoff fight that has won six of nine from the Rocket this season. From there they host the Lehigh Valley Phantoms on Friday night followed by a Saturday matinee with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.
Harvey-Pinard earned his first NHL opportunity earlier this season when the Habs recalled him for a late-December road swing. He promptly scored in his NHL debut Dec. 28 against the Tampa Bay Lightning and played two subsequent games that culminated with 17:59 of ice time on New Year’s Day against the Florida Panthers.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc with Laval’s schedule for much of January, and Harvey-Pinard endured a 12-game stretch in which he only scored once. But he is always going to have a spot in the Rocket lineup because Houle can count on him in all three zones and he can play in all situations as well ― three of his 15 goals have come while shorthanded (Laval’s 12 shorthanded tallies as a team lead the AHL).
Although only listed at 5-foot-9, 173 pounds, Harvey-Pinard’s sturdy frame and strength allow him to play well beyond that size and outmuscle opponents for pucks. Houle has also been pleased with the work that Harvey-Pinard has done to improve his skating, a key element of his two-way game that will be needed to compete for more NHL ice time.
“I think he’s improving his skating,” Houle said. “I saw him [against Hartford] a couple times in open ice. His skating is getting better. His details of the game, his stick-on-puck, finishing in front of players, third man high. He [is plus-18] for a reason. Because he cares about defense.
“And when you play well defensively, it transforms into offense.”
Patrick Williams has been on the American Hockey League beat for nearly two decades for outlets including NHL.com, Sportsnet, TSN, The Hockey News, SiriusXM NHL Network Radio and SLAM! Sports. He was the recipient of the AHL’s James H. Ellery Memorial Award for his outstanding coverage of the league in 2016.