LAVAL - More than a few Rocket players experienced their first seasons in the AHL ranks during the 2018-19 campaign. But, that was also the case for Joël Bouchard.
In his freshman season behind a pro bench, Bouchard mentored one of the youngest groups in the League. Despite the fact that the Rocket failed to make the playoffs, Bouchard was still quick to praise his troops for their efforts all year long, leaving everything out on the ice from start to finish.
"It was my first year in the AHL with some extraordinary youngsters. I know that people look at the results and say: "They didn't make the playoffs." That's the ultimate goal, earn a postseason spot and go as far as possible," mentioned Bouchard. "We have to give credit to the players who bought into the system 100%. They were impressive. They deserve to be given credit for it."
The Rocket boasted seven players on their roster who were under contract with the Canadiens and made their AHL debuts.
Bouchard's squad also had to deal with injuries. Defenseman Gustav Olofsson, who was acquired on October 3 from the Minnesota Wild, only suited up for two games because of shoulder surgery. For his part, Michael McCarron only made 32 appearances with Laval and was forced to go under the knife to repair his shoulder as well.
While the injury bug hit hard, the Rocket also lost several players who were put on waivers, including Jacob de la Rose, Nikita Scherbak and Kenny Agostino.
Nevertheless, Bouchard still believes that his group of players and coaches made solid progress as the season rolled on.
"As a coach, you improve yourself all the time. If you don't improve, you'll definitely take steps back because everyone else is improving. Hockey evolves. There was a lot of progress this year, as much on the part of the players as with the coaches," explained Bouchard. "My job is to develop players and build a program."
When asked which of his players could make the jump to the big club next season, Bouchard made a rather firm statement worded in his own unique way.
"Right now, today, as we're talking, and that's my message to the players: "Today until camp, you need to be better. It's not good enough. You're making good progress, I like where you're heading, it's a positive meeting, but it's not good enough." The reality is what are they going to do in the next days? Everybody else in the American League or on NHL rosters or young guys coming up will do something this summer. What are they going to do more than the other guys? They're all in the jungle of hockey right now. What are they going to do at camp so Marc and his group see them and say: "Wow! This guy came to make the team!" What I think right now, it doesn't matter. Do they have potential? Yeah, a lot of them have potential to be an NHL player. Of course they do. Is it good enough? No. They've got to be better. That's the reality of being a young player. They've got to be better because they have to take a job from somebody else. But they've got to fight with somebody else to get that job. What are they going to do in May, June, July and August? What are they going to do more than the other guys? When they do 20 push-ups, are you going to do 30? That's what is going to give you the chance to be an NHL player. Are you going to go on the ice during the summer? If Sidney Crosby goes on the ice all summer to work on his game, I think all our guys should go on the ice and work on their game."
Video: Joël Bouchard's season-ending press conference
The players speak
Bouchard's players also had a chance to meet the media at Place Bell on Monday. Here's a look at some of their comments.
Karl Alzner on his future:
"I'd like to be in a situation where I'm playing in the NHL again. I don't know what's going to happen in the summer with the team. I know some guys there need to re-sign, so I don't know how that's going to play out. But, it was pretty clear this year that there wasn't a spot for me and I'd like to be in a situation where there is a spot for me."
Video: Karl Alzner on his season in Laval
Josh Brook on where he'll play next season:
"We'll see how the summer goes and who knows what happens in camp, but I'm just going to try to improve as much as I can in the summer here and see what happens."
Video: Josh Brook on his stint with Laval
Michael McNiven on improving his game:
"In pro hockey, consistency is huge. At the beginning of the year, there were times where I wasn't consistent. I need to develop more consistent habits within my game so I can play like I did from Christmas on for the full season."
Video: Michael McNiven on his second year as a pro
Jake Evans on improving his game:
"I think the biggest thing for me is obviously strength and getting bigger and being hard to play against, especially in the corners in front of the net. Working on my speed work, too, those first few steps are big for me, and then my shot. I want to be more of a threat, shooting the puck. Those will be things I'll be focusing on this summer."
Video: Jake Evans on his rookie season in the AHL