JF Houle paying off on Rocket bench

Coaching from the bottom to top is equally important and that is why JF Houle's work in Laval is crucial.
Syracuse Crunch v Laval Rocket - Game Three
Syracuse Crunch v Laval Rocket - Game Three / Minas Panagiotakis/GettyImages
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A duo who needed some AHL conditioning

Joel Armia
Detroit Red Wings vs Montreal Canadiens / Minas Panagiotakis/GettyImages

Houle was great with the rookies, both integrating them into the Rocket lineup and preparing a couple for their eventual NHL debuts. Those debuts, of course, lasted longer than just a game or two, which added a few feathers to Houle's hat, proving his importance. But he also helped a couple of Habs who were sent down to work on a couple of things.

Joel Armia is the first of the two; he had a slow start to the season and given what he has shown capable of in the past, his play wasn't cutting it. When he reached Laval, it seemed to light a fire under the Finnish winger, who took the demotion on the chin and emerged as one the top forwards on the Rocket. Armia played eight games with the Rocket and the Canadiens saw enough; his nine points in that time and rejuvenated game earned him a promotion.

Armia rejoined the Canadiens and never looked back, playing some of his best hockey since starting his career in Montreal. The 30-year-old posted the third-best offensive output of his career, with 25 points in 66 games. His 17 goals were also a new career-high.

Arber Xhekaj had an impressive rookie season with the Canadiens; as perhaps the best story of the 2022-23 Habs season. From undrafted free agent to making the team out of camp, then establishing himself as a tough, no-nonsense young defender, who had something more to his game. The 23-year-old scored 5-8-13 through 44 games before his season was cut short by a shoulder injury.

Year two showed a less risky version of The Sheriff, who chose to pick his battles a little better. But when after he suffered returned from a minor injury, the Habs decided to send him to Laval for some conditioning. Xhekaj played 17 games under Houle scoring 3-8-11; he looked comfortable offensively and his play away from the puck showed much improvement, which gained the ire of the Habs, who called him back up.

Xhekaj ended up with another shoulder injury, and that shortened his sophomore season. But there was a dramatic difference in his play after playing with the Rocket. The same can be said about Armia, who had an incredible season with the Habs, upon returning to the lineup. Both players put in the work, but Houle was a culprit for their success.

Final thoughts

Next year will be more of the same, with new faces ready to prove themselves in Laval. Whether it be players previously drafted or new ones who might be looking to make their mark in professional hockey. Because of the new additions each season, the head coach in Laval is one of the most important figures in the Habs organization.

Without Houle and the coaching staff in Laval working well together, the Canadiens pipeline would stall. Certainly, there will be new players next year and beyond that will be integrated into the Habs lineup. Take, for example, Luke Tuch and Florian Xhekaj, both players were dominant in their respective leagues during their final season and they will be looking to have that translate to the AHL.

It's far from the easiest job and at times it may be frustrating, but Houle deserves a lot of credit for the work he has done in his first three seasons behind the Rocket bench.

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