Rocket lifts off to a good start

By Christian Gagne

When going over the team schedule this year, a strong start was obviously important. Opening the season with a five game home stand will do that. And after four games, it is fair to say the Rocket has responded, winning the first three (against Shawinigan, Drummondville and Val d’Or) before dropping the fourth to Sherbrooke. With Louis Robitaille and Brett Lutes back from the rookie tournament in Hull where they wore the Phoenix colors, both have had strong starts, particularly Lutes, who was the League leading scorer after three games. He registered an impressive three goals and five assists during that stint, before being held pointless against the Castors, in a rare off night for him. So far this season, Lutes has been on a tear, playing hungry hockey, and proving he has his place in higher levels. Louis Robitaille, on his part, has continued to be his loud mouth self on the ice, getting on the nerves of opponents, all the while playing physical hockey. Sherbrooke’s Jonathan Robert was seeing a few stars after Robitaille hit him into the boards.

The return of both 20-year-olds will play a very important part in the success of the Rocket this season. The Montreal squad has also been handed the gift of not having too many players off at NHL camps, meaning they could start the year with a full line-up. Only goaltender Jonathan Cayer (Boston) and Jean-Francois Soucy (Tampa Bay) were invited to the main camps, and Cayer didn’t survive the first Bruins cuts. His replacement, Eric Bourbeau, did a very good job in the first two games. Cayer was in nets for the third and fourth games. And while he was great in the win against Val d’Or, he was average in the loss to Sherbrooke. Against the Castors, while none of the goals against were softies, none of his saves were important ones, as each big save which would have been needed turned into a goal. It still is way too early to tell how the season will play out for Cayer, but the question mark in nets hasn’t been answered and could still go either way. Our prediction remains the same, that he should be a middle of the pack #1 goaltender, which without loosing games for his team, will not steal any. His first two appearances are probably both ends of that scale.

Earlier this season, we noted that young talents had to step up, and so far, have they ever. Cory Urquhart, who showed up having gained a little in height, is now centering the second line and doing a good job at it. From day one he has been standing out, scoring a hat trick in the first intra-squad game during the first day of camp. His skills are beginning to smoothen out, meaning he is developing that raw talent of his. Playing with Michael Lambert and Fabien Laniel, the line has been most productive, and it wouldn’t come as a surprise to see Danick Jasmin-Riel join his old linemates, Laniel and Urquhart, in the near future. Jasmin-Riel is another player who has been playing well since day one. During that first day, he bodychecked more players than he had the whole previous year, and he hasn’t slowed down. You won’t confuse him as a power forward type any time soon, but last season, Jasmin-Riel was a good player when a stick length away from the boards. As the year went along, he showed more willingness to get his nose dirty, but still played a soft game. This season, he is using that big frame of his and continuing to learn how to make better use of it. 2004 first round hopeful Jeff MacAulay has stepped his play, responding to an increased role and icetime. He is still itching to get that puck in the offensive zone, but he has learned to be a little more patient and has improved his defensive zone coverage. He also has grown a little taller and larger shoulder wise, justifying why is regarded as such a high hope for his draft year.

The strong start and promising season is also due in part to the scouting staff of the Rocket. While they have walked away with somewhat weak crops in the first years, rookies are playing important roles this season. Import draft selection Olli Havikari has been playing sound hockey, even if he is still adapting to North American hockey and learning how to communicate. 2000 QMJHL draft selection Maxim Lapierre has been making great use of his speed on the third line, and could soon be joined by the promising Cody Jenkins. Jenkins, who was a steal in the 14th round of the 2002 draft, brings speed, energy and physical play to the table. He enjoys hitting people, and has some offensive upside to him. While he has started the year on the fourth line, with coach Gilbert Delorme not looking yet comfortable using him, Jenkins, who played in Charlottetown last year, would be a great fit with Lapierre. The major set back in such a combination at this point, would be of having two rookies playing together. How they mature during the year could be a deciding factor. And finally, the last rookie to make an important impact, has been David Laliberte, the first round selection of the Rocket in last year’s draft, third overall. His speed and offensive flair has gained him a place on the first line with Pierre-Andre Bureau and Brett Lutes.

Which brings up another interesting point, which is Pierre-Andre Bureau’s new role. Bureau clearly has the full support of Delorme, having been assigned the role of first line center, and team captain, over the heavily favorite Louis Robitaille. Bureau’s abilities are obviously present, as he has speed, stickhandling, a good shot and plays with heart. His lack of size would be of bigger concern in the NHL, as in the QMJHL, players are smaller, and so the fatigue will wear down on Bureau less than it would in the pros. “P-A”, as his teammates call him, also played on the team’s defensive line last season, meaning he can handle big minutes. What is of concern however, is his lack of hockey sense. At times he does look a little lost, as he doesn’t seem to know where to go next. This is never a good sign in player who is handed such a big role, especially considering that while he can take a hit, he is soft in not giving any.

Personally, in looking over the lines used so far (see below), Michael Lambert seems as if he would be a better fit on the first line with Lutes and Laliberte. The second line could be made of Laniel – Urquhart – Jasmin-Riel, and the third of Lapierre – Bureau – Jenkins. This would leave 20 year old Mike Bray on the fourth line, which is never a good place for such a player. However, do remember that Jean-Francois Soucy will soon return from Tampa Bay, and he could take either Lapierre or Jenkins place, meaning that one of them would play with Bray on the fourth line. And for the first time in a long time, the Rocket could rotate four lines for the whole game and get quality play from each one.

However, things don’t look to be shaping up that way. The first line of Lutes – Bureau – Laliberte, and the second of Laniel – Urquhart – Lambert look pretty cemented. Delorme will play his bench to win, so the veterans should be the ones on the third line. Soucy – Bray – Jasmin-Riel should make up the line. This would leave Lapierre and Jenkins on the fourth line. While this combination would still allow rotating a full bench, the feeling is that the third line won’t be as productive and efficient as it can be with Bray on it. Bray is a big guy and a decent fighter, but his place would be better on the fourth line, in terms of performance. The reasons why he will probably stick around the third line are simple. First, the Rocket will not want to have a 20 year old playing on the last line. What message does that send to the younger players? Second, Delorme really seems comfortable having Bray out there. Against Hull in last year’s playoffs, Delorme took Jasmin-Riel off the Laniel-Urquhart line, which had been playing great when assembled in the final weeks, and put Bray on it. Or course, offensively, the line wasn’t as effective.

In the end, look for Bray staying on the third line and Lapierre making things as difficult as possible on the coaching staff. Jenkins has his place in an increased role, but as mentioned earlier, he doesn’t seem to have gained the coaching staff’s full confidence yet.


vs. Drummondville Voltigeurs
1st line: 19 – B. Lutes, 22 – P.-A. Bureau, 16 – D. Laliberte
2nd line: 14 – F. Laniel, 81 – C. Urquhart, 10 – M. Lambert
3rd line: 26 – J.-P. Hamel, 25 – M. Lapierre, – 21 – M. Bray
4th line : 20 – J.-F. Roux, 44 – J. Bonneau, 8 – Y. Turcotte

1st pairing: 15 – L. Robitaille, 7 – P. Macek
2nd pairing: 4 – T. Noye, 27 – S. Gibbons
3rd pairing: 18 – J. MacAulay, 12 – O. Havikari

1st goalie: 31 – E. Bourbeau
2nd goalie: 1 – S. Cormier

vs. Sherbrooke Castors
1st line: 19 – B. Lutes, 22 – P.-A. Bureau, 16 – D. Laliberte
2nd line: 14 – F. Laniel, 81 – C. Urquhart, 10 – M. Lambert
3rd line: 21 – M. Bray, 25 – M. Lapierre, 24 – D. Jasmin-Riel
4th line : 26 – J.-P. Hamel, 29 – C. Jenkins, 44 – J. Bonneau

1st pairing: 15 – L. Robitaille, 7 – P.Macek
2nd pairing: 4 – T. Noye, 27 – S. Gibbons
3rd pairing: 8 – Y. Turcotte, 18 – J. MacAuley

1st goalie: 30 – J. Cayer
2nd goalie: 31 – E. Bourbeau

PROSPECT WATCH – Beyond 2003

Philippe Paquet – D
Seminaire St-Francois Blizzard – Midget AAA

On what is a loaded Midget AAA team, the Seminaire St-Francois Blizzard are going to have a number of players drafted in the high rounds. One of the early favorites is defenseman Philippe Paquet (12/03/87). Possessing good size and mobility, he is shaping up to be a solid all around player, playing important minutes. Whenever the coach sends you out to kill a 5-on-3 penalty, that says something. Add to that the fact that he plays the power play, and it’s not hard to see why teams will be interested. He could clear the crease a little better, but at such a young age, one is willing to look pass that.

From the man sitting high above center ice,
this is Christian Gagne for Hockey’s Future