Rookie Simoneau providing Rocket a spark

Photo: Arianne Bergeron/ l’Arena du Rocket Inc.

📝 by Patrick Williams

Head coach Jean-Francois Houle wanted Xavier Simoneau to see the Laval Rocket’s game in Bridgeport on Oct. 22 from a different vantage point.

For Simoneau, a 21-year-old rookie forward with four AHL games to his name, that spot happened to be in the stands.

Simoneau has not taken a seat since.

Averaging a point per game since that night, Simoneau is now tied for the league lead among rookies with 12 assists and 16 points this season. He also leads the Rocket in assists and is second only to veteran Anthony Richard in points.

“To be in the stands one game,” Simoneau said, “it helped me a lot to just watch a game and slow myself down. [Houle] didn’t just scratch me to scratch me. He [took] me in his office to talk to me about my game. He showed me some video, too.”

So, Houle’s decision that night should not be construed as a punishment for Simoneau, a sixth-round pick by the Montreal Canadiens in the 2021 NHL Draft. He had picked up an assist — his first point as a professional — the night before in a 2-1 loss at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. But nothing was ever going to come easily, and the AHL’s pace of play can be a lot to take in for young players, especially barely a week into their first pro season.

At 5-foot-6 and 183 pounds entering the AHL, Simoneau is small on paper. But what the solidly built energy player can do is go into difficult traffic areas. He can skate. He’s willing — and able — to engage and battle for pucks, fish them out, and distribute them. And he certainly will agitate opponents, who may well have less charitable ways to describe the feisty forward.

“Pretty physical for a small guy,” Houle said.

That willingness to battle has marked Simoneau’s path to Laval. As an over-age player with Charlottetown in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League last season, Simoneau delivered 86 points (24 goals, 62 assists) in only 48 regular-season games. He then amassed a league-best 17 assists and totaled 21 points in 14 playoff games as the Islanders reached the QMJHL finals.

Photo: Arianne Bergeron/ l’Arena du Rocket Inc.

By July, Simoneau had his name on a one-year AHL deal with the Rocket. Sure, it was an AHL contract rather than one of the NHL variety, but it was an entry point into the Canadiens organization. With the Habs centered some 20 minutes away in downtown Montreal, the organization has personnel working with its prospects on a regular basis in practice and taking in games as well.

But with the Rocket (6-11-0-3) struggling in the early going this season, few spots in the lineup are concrete. They lead the AHL averaging 35.5 shots on goal per game — including ripping off 50 shots on Belleville netminder Antoine Bibeau on Saturday only to leave town with a 4-1 setback — but are 30th in goals allowed (3.95). And now they find themselves in the midst of a run playing nine of 11 games away from Place Bell.

While Houle continues to juggle lines and personnel in search of the right mix, Simoneau will put a five-game point streak (one goal, five assists) on the line tonight in Utica. His development, however, will go far beyond points and numbers.

“The boys are bigger, faster,” Simoneau said of what he faces now in the AHL. “In junior, you can have a bad game, but you can finish the game with three points. But it [will not] happen here, so you need to be consistent in every shift.”

That quest for consistency tests many young prospects. If Simoneau can find it, however, eventually the next step will be to secure an NHL deal with the Canadiens.

For inspiration, Simoneau need not look any further than someone who has been a linemate at times this season, third-year pro Rafaël Harvey-Pinard. A seventh-round pick by the Canadiens in 2019, Harvey-Pinard also had to play his over-age season in the QMJHL and then find his way to the Laval roster via an AHL deal. But by the end of a standout 2020-21 campaign with the Rocket, Harvey-Pinard held a new two-year contract with the Canadiens in hand, and he earned his first four NHL games last season.

As Houle said, “It’s a grind to make it to the NHL.”

But with a relatively new management regime in Montreal, the organization’s rebuilding effort continues. Any player on the Laval roster is quite aware of that, and Simoneau has been leaning on his teammates for help navigating these early pro days.

“We have good veterans,” Simoneau said. “They help me a lot, and the more you play, the more you get comfortable.

“I try to be a sponge.”