The Launch of a New Season

By Christian Gagne

Spider-man may have invited fans to go for the ultimate spin, but the Rocket has taken its fans on the ultimate suspense ride. Team owner Serge Savard desperately tried to move the team from Montreal, in favor of Charlottown, PEI and Cornwall, ONT. The board of governors refused the transfer to PEI, stating that four maritime teams were enough for the moment, even more so after Sherbrooke was refused a transfer to Summerside, PEI last year. As for Cornwall, the OHL refused to give up the territory, not wanting to lose some of it’s players from the radius, and also considering everything that happened the last time the QMJHL played in Cornwall. Montreal management then had to make a decision, and opted to play out the year in Montreal. This does come as a pleasant surprise, as players were informed the team would be moving.

However, after the season ends, there are no guarantees. League commissioner Gilles Courteau has made it clear that he wants a team in Quebec’s metropolis, but history does show it is quite hard to survive in that market. Winning teams in both Laval and Verdun have had to leave or fold. This means that unless attendance goes up, this season would be the Rockets last hurrah.

Things are looking up though. The playoff crowds were impressive, a trend which begun in the final regular season games. The team did give away free tickets to local minor hockey organizations, but people did show a willingness to come. Oddly enough, this was the team’s most aggressive marketing campaign, which shows how little the team does in terms of exposure. In Montreal, if you want people to come, you have to tell them something worth going to is happening.

And this could be the year where the team’s on ice performance in itself will be good enough to justify large crowds. But this will only happen if all question marks are answered with positive answers.

1 – Brett Lutes and Louis Robitaille must return as 20-year-old overagers

Neither one of these two players is your average overager. Both are well above average, having been selected for last year’s QMJHL All-Star team which defeated Team OHL. Brett Lutes has been carrying the offensive load on his back for the past two seasons, and will have to be there as the go-to-guy again. He anchors the Power Play, and was one of the big reasons last year’s playoff serie with Hull extended to 7 games. So far he hasn’t been approached by an NHL team for a tryout at a rookie camp, which comes as a big surprise, considering teammate Petr Macek will be attending Montreal’s. It wouldn’t be surprising however to see Lutes imitate Shawinigan’s Dominic Forget, who signed a minor league contract with an ECHL team last year.

Louis Robitaille will be skating with the Phoenix rookies, and he is looking to sign as soon as possible. He remains the early favorite to be the next team captain, but Robitaille’s mind has not changed since last year. If a contract is offered, he will take it.

The team’s faith will largely depend on the return of both these players. The team’s other 20-year-old, enforcer Mike Bray, should be skating on the second or third line.

2 – Jonathan Cayer must step up between the pipes

Last year’s starter, Pascal Leclaire, has signed with Columbus and will be playing in the AHL. This leaves an opening for the #1 job, and Jonathan Cayer will be handed the job. He will be seeing plenty of rubber behind what was an average defense last year, and Cayer will need to come up with big saves to keep his team in the game. After watching Frederik Brind’Amour at 16, starting at 17, going back to the bench at 18 for Leclaire, this is now or never for Cayer, who will now be 19 years old. We expect him to be a middle of the pack #1 goalie, who without losing games for his team, will not steal any.

As for the back-up role, Amos’ 17-yearold Kevin Telmosse or 16-year-old Bantam AA Martin Charbonneau will fight for the last spot.

3 – Replace last year’s 20-year-old leaving players Marc Villeneuve, Hugo Lehoux and Jerome Bergeron

All three 20-year-olds played important parts last season, and with them now gone, management has yet to replace them. Former captain Marc Villeneuve played on the team’s top defensive line, who had the responsibility to stop opposing teams star players. Hugo Lehoux played the role of a top four defenseman and enforcer. Jerome Bergeron skated the right wing for the Rocket’s first line, alongside Brett Lutes and Chris Montgomery, who was replaced by Michael Lambert later in the year.

The loss of Villeneuve, Lehoux and Bergeron, added with the potential lost of Lutes and Robitaille, would leave the team without 3 forwards off its top two lines, and without 2 of its top four defensemen.

4 – Young talents must take a bigger role

One thing the team wasn’t lacking last year was young talent, and all will need to take a step up from last year. Only used late in the season, the Fabien Laniel – Cory Urquhart – Danick Jasmin-Riel line was fantastic. All three have a good chance of playing together again, and they will need to put up numbers. The potential is more than present.

Defenseman Jeff MacAulay will also need to step up his play. While only being used sporadically last year, he will be counted on heavily this season, especially on the power play. However, if his defensive zone coverage does not improve, he could end up being yet again stapled to the bench during 5 on 5 play.

If the pieces call all fall into place, this should be a very good season for a competitive Rocket team. Of course, some will say that this is the song they were singing last year, but this time around, if should be for real. But again, Lutes and Robitaille must return.

If so, Lambert and Lutes will play the top line, but team GM Savard Jr. will need to trade for a player to help them out. The top defensive line could be made of J.-F. Soucy – P.-A. Bureau – Mike Bray. The third line would then be Laniel – Urquhart – Jasmin-Riel. Do not be surprised to see Jasmin-Riel or Urquhart promoted to the first line, and see someone as Sylvain Angers take their place. This season again, coach Delorme will most certainly play three lines. But reinforcements on the fourth line would be more than welcomed, as three lines can wear down players in a long playoff drive.

Defensively, the team will need veterans Tyler Noye and Petr Macek to lead the way. MacAulay will be able to provide an offensive spark, and newly drafted Olli Havikari will help out, rounding out the top 4. Expect QMJHL draft third overall selection David Laliberte to be used in a limited role, as the team prefers bringing its players along slowly. Mathieu Lapointe will complete this group which sorely needs Robitaille, otherwise forcing it to use a 16-year-old in MacAulay and a 17-year-old in Havikari within the top four. If Robitaille returns, Lapointe’s role will be as a seventh defenseman, if not, then as a sixth.

Overall, expect this group to be a competitive one. All that is needed is for GM Savard to patch a hole on the first line as he did last year with Bergeron. This time around however, it will be more complicated, as the player coming in cannot be 20. Expect a 19-year-old to be moving in. The other possibility would be, as mentionned earlier, to move up Urquhart or Jasmin-Riel to the top line, and thus forcing Savard to limit himself at picking up a third line forward. Other than that, if each player improves the way they should, this will be a very competitive season for the Rocket.

News and Notes

– GM Serge Savard Jr. will be replacing president Mario Messier who previously vacated the position. Marc Savard will replace Jean-Luc Lussier as the team’s governor.

– Training camp opens on August the 19th at the Maurice Richard arena. The Rocket plays its first exhibition game in Rouyn-Noranda on the 21st, and will host the Huskies on the 23rd at the Molson Center.

– A local fan is doing what he can to help save the team. The supporter is organizing a get together for all the fans on the 19th. All seems to be coming along nicely so far.

– Olli Havikari was the player the Rocket decided to select at this year’s import draft. The Finnish defenseman, who stands 6’2 and 185 pounds, skated for HIFK juniors last season. He is a potential first round selection in the upcoming 2003 NHL Entry Draft.

– Some players, while not selected at the Entry Draft, have drawn attention. Jonathan Cayer will tryout for the Boston Bruins, Louis Robitaille will be skating with the Phoenix Coyotes, and Petr Macek will do the same for the Montreal Canadiens.

– Gilbert Delorme will have a new assistant coach with him next season, as Stephane Scotto has accepted an offer from the team. Last season, Scotto coached the Valleyfield Braves of the Quebec Junior AAA League. He led his team to the league championship three times in the last seven years.