Rocket to the Top Prospects
February 27, 2020
By Grant McCagg
Don’t look now, but the Laval Rocket are on a winning streak. Three straight wins, and seven out of a possible eight points in the last four.
It is also three-straight wins with just one goal against in each victory for Cayden Primeau since being handed the full-time reins for Laval. He has saved 77 of 80 shots for a .963 SP in the poast three games.
Last night’s 4-1 victory was especially impressive for Primeau and the Rocket considering that they were facing a first-place Belleville team that leads the AHL in goals.
Laval dressed three defencemen who would normally not even be in the lineup if not for injuries in the organization. Josh Brook, Gustav Olofsson and Cale Fleury played heavy minutes with the club being shorthanded, and were solid in shutting down the league’s top offence.
Most encouraging about last night’s game was that the top prospects looked like…top prospects. Apart from the solid performance by Primeau, Brook demonstrated that he is not far away from pushing for an NHL job.
Laval coach Joel Bouchard has tasked him with playing a defensive role for the most part this season, and he has responded with impressive improvements in his decision-making, positioning and aggressiveness in clearing out the crease since he made his AHL debut.
Brook is adjusting well to the speed and strength, and gaining confidence in his one-on-on defending. He is looking more and more comfortable, and next season, look for him to follow a similar path as he did in the WHL, increasing his numbers as he gains offensive confidence. Brook is one of the better passing defencemen in the organization, and that will be welcome on a Canadiens club that is not exactly teeming with sharp outlet passers at the pro level.
He can put the puck on a teammates’ tape from three zones away when his game is on, and he’ll help Montreal’s transition game once he’s ready to make the jump. He’ll also be able to contribute on a second power play once he find his offensive niche…he is too good a passer not to contribute steadily in the offensive zone.
Let’s hope that the Ryan Poehling on the wing experiment is over…for the time being at least. Kevin Lynch, as impressive as he has been this season as a surprise key contributor, is not the future at center for the Canadiens. So why was he taking all of the key draws while Poehkling and even Kotkaniemi either sat on the bench or played on his wing?
The biggest issue in Poehling’s game at center for the past 13 months has been in the faceoff circle. For whatever reasons since the 2019 WJC, he lost confidence in the faceoff dot and was incapable of winning even one third of his draws most nights.
Yet for much of this season at both the AHL and NHL level, Poehling has been utilized on the wing. Poehling was a first-line center on one of the winningest college teams of the previous three seasons because he was a damn good centerman. Why he hasn’t been developed exclusively at center this campaign has been one of the bigger organizational mysteries.
The only way one is truly going to get better at taking faceoffs is doing so in game situations. You can practise faceoffs all you want; they cannot duplicate the pressure of having to win a faceoff late in the game in your own end while protecting a one-goal lead.
Last night we saw Poehling doing just that, and he even won a couple of those key faceoffs. Confidence is perhaps the biggest factor in the faceoff dot, and those wins can only help Poehling get over the mental barrier has has faced in the past year, as he was actually pretty good at draws before that. Develop him at center in the AHL. If it later turns out that he’s needed on the wing in Montreal, then you move him to the wing at that time. It is far easier to move a center to the wing than vice versa.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi is right where he should be at this point in his development. Playing at a level of hockey where it is certainly not too easy, but where he has enough time and space to make skilled plays that he was finding difficult to pull off at the NHL level, be it through his stickhandling or passing.
He is also being asked to play a more prominent defensive role as he is more able to keep up with the best offensive players in the AHL than the NHL; he is closer to their speed and strength at this point in his development. You didn’t see KK out on the ice in key defensive situations in Montreal that often in his last few months; that has not been the case in Laval, and that is important in his maturation process.
Lots to learn, and no better place to learn it. He is still making mistakes, but if you are going to do so in an organization, better that it be in the AHL than the NHL. You can’t win the Stanley Cup in the AHL, and that ultimately is each organization’s goal.
If Kotkaniemi can keep up this assist pace for the rest of the season, he’ll be the first to do so(based on 30+ GP) since Keith Aucoin turned the trick in 2011-12. Aucoin was a seasoned AHL veteran, not some 19-year-old rookie just getting his feet wet. I have maintained since his draft year that Kotkaniemi had 40 or 50-assist potential at the NHL level, and his play in the last three weeks in Laval are a better indicator of his offensive upside than the two assists he garnered in 36 NHL games earlier in the season.
What is most encouraging, besides the re-emergence of his offensive confidence, is the changes he has made in his skating mechanics since being sent down. He is bending his knees more, and as a result is far less prone to lose his balance and be knocked over given his lower center of gravity. His falls-per-game average have gone way down in Laval due to this adjustment, and the AHL coaching staff deserves some credit for this as it’s not likely that he came up with this adjustment solely on his own.
I do hand out kudos to the AHL staff cautiously, however, as for much of the season it had been frustrating to see how the top prospects were being utilized. Kotkaniemi and Poehling taking few draws and Poehling playing on the wing, Jake Evans spending much of the season on the wing as well when he could well be Montreal’s fourth-line center next season.
The top offensive defence prospect in Brook not being put on the top power play unit or even the second unit, Primeau splitting games with a clearly struggling Keith Kinkaid, and before that, Charlie Lindgren. All of those decisions were puzzling, and it is abundantly evident that Joel Bouchard was recently instructed by management to play the top prospects more, and in all situations.
Suddenly..in the past week we saw Primeau play three straight games. We saw Brook being inserted on the top defence pairing with Gustav Olofsson and playing 20+ minutes, we saw Ryan Poelhing moved to center and taking key draws..as that’s the only way he is going to get his faceoff woes turned around.
As I tweeted a few days ago, it is apparent that Bouchard and his staff were read the riot act. Play the kids in all key situations, and play them lots. And the result? Three straight wins. Brook, Kotkaniemi, Fleury, Primeau and Poehling are the top prospects on this Laval team…all are in fact in Montreal’s top eight on the prospect ranking chart, so their development is paramount.
If this club makes it into the playoffs, it should be on their backs, not journeymen with suspect NHL futures.