Stu Cowan: The Habs’ Defense of the Future Put to the Test in Rocket’s Playoffs

“A lot of these guys have the skill and potential to play in the NHL,” Laval coach Jean-Francois Houle says of the blue line prospects.

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Laval Rocket manager Jean-François Houle is excited about the Canadiens’ defensive prospects he could work with in the future.

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Corey Schueneman, Mattias Norlinder, Justin Barron and Jordan Harris made their NHL debuts this season with the Canadiens. Schueneman and Norlinder are playing for Rocket in the AHL North Division semifinal against Syracuse Crunch.

“I think it bodes well for the future looking at these youngsters,” Houle said after the Rocket trained Wednesday at Place Bell. “And then you have guys like (Kaiden) Guhle coming in and (Arber) Xhekaj too, who is a pro signee.”

The Canadiens selected Guhle in the first round of the 2020 NHL Draft and signed Xhekaj as a free agent in October.

Guhle is playing in the WHL playoffs with the Edmonton Oil Kings, who swept their Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Red Deer Rebels. In eight playoff games, Guhle is 3-6-9 overall. Xhekaj is playing in the OHL playoffs with the Hamilton Bulldogs, who have a 3-0 lead in the Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Mississauga Steelheads. In six playoff games, Xhekaj is 2-2-4 total.

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Guhle, Norlinder (third round, 2019) and Harris (third round, 2018) are among the 12 defenders the Canadiens have selected in the last four NHL drafts. That list includes Logan Mailloux (1st round, 2021), Jayden Struble (2nd round, 2019) and Alexander Romanov (2nd round, 2018), who already has two seasons of NHL experience.

“They are young,” Houle said of the group of advocates. “It’s up to us to probably have a lot of these young people and develop them in the right way. We’re going to try to develop in a winning environment and a lot of these guys have the skill and potential to play in the NHL. So the next few years on defense will be fun to watch.”

Norlinder started this season with the Canadiens, playing six games before being sent to Laval. After playing six games with Rocket, Norlinder decided to return to Sweden to complete the final season of his two-year contract with Frolunda HC. After Frolunda lost in the SHL semifinals, Norlinder decided to return to Laval last week.

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In 21 regular season games with Frolunda, Norlinder went 0-2-2 overall. He went 0-6-6 overall in nine playoff games.

“When we lost in the semis, it was kind of tough,” Norlinder said after returning to Rocket. “But I talked to my agent about going again and I got a chance to (play) for something and win something, so I’m looking forward to it.

“I’m excited to be here and hope we can win some games.”

Norlinder made his AHL playoff debut last Saturday in Syracuse, when Rocket beat Crunch 3-2 to tie the best-of-five series in one game each. Houle believes Norlinder has many tools that can make him a good defender, adding that he wants him to play hard during the playoffs, win his battles and move the puck quickly.

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“But we also have other good defenders,” added Houle. “So you can’t think you’re going to go in and take all the ice time. It just won’t happen and it’s not realistic. But he is an important part of the organization. In practice, he is doing well. He did well in the game the other night, I thought, for his first playoff game. He’s raised his level of intensity and that’s what we need.”

Houle guided the Rocket to their first playoff berth since the Canadiens moved their top farm team from St. John’s, NL, to Laval to start the 2017-18 AHL season. Joël Bouchard, the man Houle replaced on the Rocket’s bench this season, was fired Wednesday by the AHL’s San Diego Gulls after they were eliminated by Ontario Reign in the first round of the playoffs.

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“This has been a difficult year for everyone and we feel a clean slate is needed in San Diego,” said Anaheim Ducks GM Pat Verbeek after deciding to fire Bouchard and his assistant coaches Daniel Jacob and Max Talbot. “These are extremely difficult decisions, but we are committed to returning to our victories in San Diego for our great fans. We wish Joel, Daniel and Max good luck in the future.”

Bouchard coached Rocket for three seasons before leaving for San Diego. The Gulls finished the regular season with a 28-33-7 record, their first losing record during their seven seasons in the AHL.

Houle signed a three-year deal with Rocket last summer.

Rocket defender Sami Niku, who has played 13 games with the Canadiens this season, was impressed with Houle as a coach.

“He’s been really good,” Niku said. “He helps a lot. We have a very good system and if everyone is playing with the system, we are doing well.”

It looks like Houle could play a key role in the Canadiens’ future success.

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