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Canadiens Analysis

Evaluating Whether J-F Houle Is The Right Coach For Laval Rocket



laval rocket head coach jean francois houle

The Laval Rocket tried their best, but the season ultimately ended not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Facing a must-win series against their division rivals, the Belleville Senators, Laval bowed out quickly, losing Friday’s game after they had built a precious two-goal lead.

There was simply no margin for error in a league famous for giving players a chance for redemption or a lifeline to the NHL.

Now that the dust has settled, the next question becomes whether the Montreal Canadiens should trust the current bench boss, Jean-Francois Houle, to bring the current group of prospects to the next level.

As it stands, Houle’s contract has come to an end, which means John Sedgwick and the rest of the Canadiens brass must determine whether Houle is the right person for the job moving forward.

The Situation

After spending several seasons covering the AHL, one thing became abundantly clear when it came to coaching.

It’s a very difficult job.

You can plan your entire season in September, but by early October you have lost some of your best players to calls ups, injuries, trades, or other factors out of the coach’s control.

With that in mind, most coaches rarely bother planning beyond the current week. It’s simply not a realistic proposal.

And when you coach the Canadiens’ AHL team, you can almost be certain finding the top players on the team will become hockey’s version of Where’s Waldo.

On top of the logistics issues inherent to the position, there’s also the matter of balancing development with team success. Of course, development should always take priority when establishing long-term plans, but we must remember that these coaches are also tasked with winning games, a metric which will be used to judge their value to the organization once the season is over.

Essentially, if an AHL coach does his job right, he’s setting himself up for failure because it means he is bound to lose the players who were making the greatest impact on the lineup.

This renders the second part of his job, team success, a difficult challenge.

These complications do not exonerate the coach from a lack of improvements from a team standpoint, but they do mitigate the chances a team like the Rocket can string together a winning streak during the regular season.

Laval Rocket Player Readiness

The first thing we tend to evaluate is whether the players hailing from the AHL are ready to play in the NHL. This is a crucial aspect of Houle’s job, arguably the most important.

And when we evaluate the players who spent a lot of time playing for the Rocket prior to their promotion to the NHL, we can safely say Houle did a good job preparing them for an eventual call-up from the Canadiens.

Last season we saw players such as Rafael Harvey-Pinard and Alex Belzile join the Habs and immediately fit in to the point that they were some of the best players in the severely depleted NHL lineup.

This season we had fewer instances where an emergency recall was needed, but we still had several examples of players ready to take the next step, including Jayden Struble, Joshua Roy, and Justin Barron. We can also note that Joel Armia seemed reinvigorated after both stints with the Rocket, though that has a little more to do with Armia’s resilience than Houle’s coaching prowess.

Player Respect

The next thing we’ll evaluate is whether the players on the team respected their coach. You may disregard this as something players should do, no matter the situation, but again, that’s simply not realistic.

Some coaches have a hard time gaining the respect of their players.

In fact, I’d argue that has been an issue for Laval Rocket players until Houle took over. That’s not to say Joel Bouchard or Sylvain Lefebvre were hated by their players, but their approaches differed greatly from Houle’s.

Bouchard was incredibly hard on his players, whereas Lefebvre was one of the most affable coaches you’ll ever meet. Unfortunately, they both pushed those characteristics to the limit, which led players to the point that they weren’t certain the coaches in question were helping them advance their careers.

This has not been the case with Houle.

He’s a communicator, like Bouchard, but he does not push them beyond a reasonable level during every practice, leaving them injured and frustrated as his predecessor did. He’s easygoing, like Lefebvre, but he knows how to crack the whip when things go wrong.

He tends to walk the line between friend and drill sergeant, an approach that works quite well in the AHL given all the variable factors in play.

Consequently, he’s the only coach for the Laval Rocket who has managed to gain the utmost trust of his players.

Laval Rocket Individual Growth

For a team like the Montreal Canadiens that is in the midst of a rebuild, individual growth is key.

It’s also one of the more difficult things to evaluate, as hockey is arguably the sport which hinges most on a group of individual players working as a cohesive unit.

On that note, we saw one example of fantastic individual growth in the Laval this season.

Logan Mailloux probably enjoyed the most growth on the farm, going from a player who could not identify his own goalie in a police lineup to a defender who can hold his own in the defensive zone, at least relative to his defensive play in the OHL.

Mailloux being named to the AHL’s All-Star team was a true testament to his improved maturity, as he arrived in Laval with the same type of hubris we saw from former Canadiens prospects such as Nathan Beaulieu.

We can also look to Jakub Dobes’ evolution as a positive aspect of the Rocket’s season, with much of the credit being owed to the team’s goaltender development coach, Marco Marciano.

On the flip side, some skilled players fell through the cracks.

Jan Mysak is an example of a player who never really found his ryhthm under Houle’s tutelage. His ice time was limited, which, in turn, led to a frustrated player who eventually demanded a trade.

The optics are far from ideal, but we also have to keep in mind Mysak has scored just one goal in 13 games with his new team, the San Diego Gulls, whereas he earned 13 goals in 48 games with Laval.

The jury is still out for players such as Riley Kidney, or even Sean Farrell, however, it was apparent the former was not ready to play 72 games of professional hockey, whereas the latter did have a very respectable rookie season that led to nine goals and 19 assists in 47 games.

Laval Rocket Team Growth And Success

This is where Houle’s success, or lack thereof, comes into play.

But again, we have to keep the context involved at the forefront of our evaluation.

The truth in the AHL is that coaches aren’t always making the final call.

A great example would be the final two games of the season, when the Habs re-assigned Jayden Struble, Justin Barron, and Joshua Roy to the AHL so they could help the team qualify for the Calder Cup playoffs.

There was more to that decision than simply giving Houle more options. There was also a directive from Canadiens management demanding the younger players be slotted into the lineup, regardless of how the coach felt about the situation.

That type of interference from above is perfectly normal in the AHL, but we’d be intellectually dishonest to ignore how these directives complicate things for the coaching staff.

It also weighs heavily on the players, particularly the veterans, which can lead to a certain level of frustration in the locker room, which was certainly the case for the Laval Rocket.

“It’s disappointing for players like Galipeau and Durandeau,” said Tobie Paquette-Bisson. “They were playing excellent hockey for us. It has nothing to do with how the young players performed. They did a great job.”

Such is life in the AHL.

It’s a chaotic mishmash of hope, veteran frustration, prospect development, and impossibly difficult coaching assignments.

Brass Tacks

We’ve listed a bevy of reasons why it’s hard to find success in the AHL as a coach, but we also have to remember this is the job Jean-Francois Houle signed up for.

Within the chaos, he must somehow find serenity, or things can quickly devolve.

It’s certainly not an easy job, but that’s why so few are available.

Simply put, you must perform regardless of the mitigating factors, and that’s where Houle’s performance comes into question.

A losing team is not an ideal situation when it comes to developing players, nor does it do justice to the fantastic fans who have made Laval one of the best-value hockey tickets going.

If you have not had a chance to attend a game at Place Bell, I invite you to do so next season. I guarantee you will leave the experience with nothing but the best hockey vibes, and you won’t have to mortgage your home to afford tickets for your family, unlike the situation for the team that plays in Montreal.

For the price of parking at the Bell Centre you can essentially buy two tickets in Laval. It’s the perfect excursion for any family looking to enjoy a day filled with fantastic hockey memories that will last a lifetime.

And that’s why some semblance of team success is so important. Those fans deserve a great atmosphere, which is already in place, and a winning team, which was not established this season.

But once we evaluate all the factors and take emotion out of the equation, it becomes clear that building a winning team was possible, but unlikely given the laundry list of last-minute changes and interference from Montreal.

There’s a point of diminishing returns when it comes to giving coaches another kick at the can. The Canadiens failed to move on from coaches like Lefebvre or Michel Therrien, and it hurt the franchise in more ways than one.

We have not quite reached that point with Houle.

But if the Canadiens decide to give him another opportunity, there has to be a higher level of accountability from the Laval Rocket coaching staff. Given the influx of talent that will arrive in Laval in the next few seasons, the Canadiens must ensure they have the right coach in place.

It may not seem fair, but that’s the ugly truth in professional sports.

Things are rarely fair, particularly in the AHL.