Canadiens: Alex Belzile and the Advent of the AHL Bottom Six

LAVAL, QC - OCTOBER 16: Alex Belzile. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
LAVAL, QC - OCTOBER 16: Alex Belzile. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images) /

After Alex Belzil and other AHL forwards performance in these playoffs, the Montreal Canadiens’ bottom-six next year could similarly benefit from it.

Being on the NHL bubble can be tough. It could’ve been for the Montreal Canadiens.

Not in the bubble, like the one that NHL players are currently in, as the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs is fully underway, with the fate for the off-season and next season still uncertain due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

No, I’m talking about the metaphorical bubble, not visible, but to a select few of the hardest working guys, you’ll find in professional hockey. There’s a great Players Tribune article by former 34-game NHL forward Brad Mills on this, and I’d recommend you give it a read for a more personal view into the topic.

In the NHL, different player’s roles on different team’s have different forms of security. Top-line players typically know they’re in their respective team’s plans for the future, while middle-six players are typically playing on lesser rental deals that can be moved should the team be out of the playoffs and looking to rebuild. Then, there are bubble players, guys who know the end could always be around the next corner, and as such fill niche roles on teams that can typically be replaced easily.

In this year’s playoffs, Montreal Canadiens fans became familiar with such a player. Saint-Eloi, Quebec native Alex Belzile. On Twitter, Belzile was mentioned by Habs players like Max Domi, as he was set to make his NHL debut after a long and tumultuous journey.

Making his QMJHL debut at age 18, Belzile went undrafted after finishing his junior career in 2012, spending the next seven seasons in a limbo between the East Coast league and AHL, playing for five ECHL teams during that span. Following back to back Kelly Cup championships with the Fort Wayne Komets and Colorado Eagles, Belzile earned a one-year AHL deal with the San Antonio Rampage, before signing with the Laval Rocket the following year. He has since earned head coach Joel Bouchard’s trust, and entered the Montreal Canadiens sights against all the odds.

More from Editorials

Following a return from injury in time for this year’s playoffs, Belzile played in 6 of the Habs 10 playoff games, recording 1 assist. He proved to be a useful addition to a Canadiens team that relied heavily on their team play to win games, finishing with an even 5-5 record, falling to the Philadelphia Flyers in six games in the first round, after defeating the Pittsburgh Penguins in the qualifying round.

In what was a very defensively stingy run for the Habs, Belzile and other, more unproven bottom-six forwards proved useful, as more established players like Jordan Weal and Dale Weise struggled with their play, either not contributing much, or making a number of costly mistakes.

Because of this, interim coach Kirk Muller, who stepped in following Claude Julien’s hospitalization, turned to some of the team’s AHL forwards from the Laval Rocket, who mostly served in, as stated, unproven bottom-six roles.

By Game 6, the team’s fourth line consisted of Belzile, Charles Hudon, and Jake Evans, all key parts of the Rocket’s roster this year. Following the departure of intended team leaders Riley Barber and Phil Varone, Evans and Hudon finished 1-2 on the Rocket in scoring, with 38 and 35 points, respectively. With 27 goals on the season, Hudon also finished 5th in the AHL in goals, tied with three other players.

Despite their struggles, the Rocket has begun to prove themselves as a solid AHL team, and development tool for the Canadiens. Following a dreadful first two years, the team has taken a similar to the Canadiens team-first approach under coach Joel Bouchard, who led them to a 30-24-8 record this year and a subsequent chance at a playoff spot. This successful season was evident in the performance of players like Evans, who made an impressive transition from college to the pros. Originally the 207th overall pick in the 2014 NHL entry draft, Evans has become a legitimate prospect for the Canadiens, getting into his first 13 NHL games this season. Personally, I find that this progression is something the Habs should take note of, and maybe consider when it comes to how they run their bottom-six next year.

Despite the difference in skill level, the AHL still has its fair share of talented players, some of which, like Belzile, sit on the NHL bubble. Former Hab Daniel Carr has become arguably one of the league’s best players yet has only seen 17 NHL games over the last two seasons as the team simply struggles to either find room for him or use him effectively. Thing is, most of these players simply want playing time, in any role, as in the end, the AHL isn’t their intended destination. Because of this, I find the idea of running a bottom-six around AHL forwards is one that could prove to be beneficial, especially for a team like the Canadiens, who’s bottom-six has adopted a “when they’re on the ice, nothing happens, and that’s good” approach.

The main thing most AHL stars want is an NHL chance, and for league minimum, acquiring a player like Carr with high offensive upside and solid checking abilities could prove beneficial, and at the very least bring some excitement to a Canadiens team whose main accomplishment at times was keeping their fans awake. If Alex Belzile can get his shot and play solid hockey, I think other players should deserve the same.

Next. 5 free agent backups to target. dark

It’s going to be interesting to see how things play out in regard to next year’s NHL season, but should it resume fully, I think the Canadiens bottom six, could use a bit of help, from those metaphorical, bubble players.