The Canadiens have entrusted their future to Jean-François Houle. Now they have to help him


There is a belief – and it is not without reason – that the Montreal Canadiens have a responsibility and need to train their own coaches in the AHL. Since the Canadiens coach must be able to communicate in both official languages ​​of Canada, it is felt that the Laval Rocket coach should be someone who can realistically coach the Canadiens one day.

It's hard to say if the Canadiens see Jean-François Houle in that light. Maybe, maybe not. But in one light, they clearly see Houle as a valuable asset to what they are trying to build: player development, because the Canadiens will produce a lot of future NHL players from Laval, and actually getting those players to the NHL in the near future is an important task.

One could easily argue that this job is more important than training the Canadiens' next coach. And the Canadiens entrusted Houle with that task for the next three years when they signed him to a contract extension on Wednesday, just over a month before his contract was set to expire.

That three-year term is exactly the same as the remainder of Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis' contract after the team exercised the two-year option on his deal immediately after the season ended. The two are now inseparable, and the trust the Canadiens have in St. Louis is also tied to the trust they have in Houle, as it makes it clear that the Canadiens don't feel they need a coaching safety net in Laval.

Again, maybe the Canadiens see Houle as their next head coach. Maybe. But what is obvious is that they see him as a key figure in managing the transition of players from Laval to Montreal over the next three years, because Houle's work in that regard has already given them that confidence.

That's not to say Houle doesn't have NHL aspirations – he definitely does – but the way things are looking in St. Louis right now, those aspirations aren't necessarily going to be achieved in Montreal any time soon. And Houle doesn't seem to have a problem with that.

Houle has coached the Laval Rocket since 2021. (David Kirouac / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“Every path is different for a coach,” Houle said Wednesday in a video conference. “Some come from the AHL, some come as an assistant coach in the NHL, some come from the NCAA, every path is different for every coach. I'm a patient man. I think it's important to enjoy the moment, the present moment that you're in. That's what I plan to do. When an opportunity comes up in this or other organizations, I'm always there to listen.”

“But I always try not to look too far. I live pretty much in the present.”

And the present for Houle means showing players like Owen Beck and Filip Mešár, as well as Florian Xhekaj and Luke Tuch, how they can use Laval as a springboard for their NHL careers. Add those names to the young players who have already been to Laval, like Sean Farrell, Riley Kidney, Logan Mailloux, Emil Heineman and others, and the challenge for the Rocket next season will be very similar to this season, when they dug themselves too deep a hole early and simply didn't have time to work their way out.

Winning is not only an important part of development, but also a way for an AHL coach to raise his profile. And doing that with such a young team in a league where older teams are usually the most successful this time of year seems like a mission impossible. So it's important for the organization, but also for Houle's ambitions.

“In the medium term, it's about winning with young players,” said Houle. “Yes, that's possible and yes, it's important. That will be the biggest challenge for our coaching staff again this year, to develop the players well, but also to ensure that the team progresses.”

Fortunately, there is currently an AHL team that is showing them a way.

The AHL's Conference Finals are currently underway, with the Hershey Bears taking on the Cleveland Monsters in the East and the Coachella Valley Firebirds taking on the Milwaukee Admirals in the West. When you look at the teams' top five scorers heading into Friday night's game, the guys behind the wheel are generally veterans. Among the Coachella team's top five scorers, no one is under 25. In Cleveland, top Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman David Jiříček leads the team in scoring, but the next four on the list are undrafted veterans. Hershey is led by Washington Capitals first-round pick Hendrix Lapierre, and teammate Ivan Miroshnichenko is fifth in scoring, but the other three are AHL veterans.

And then there's Milwaukee.

The Admirals' top five scorers entering Game 2 of their series against Coachella on Friday night are all 23 years old or younger, four of them are AHL rookies and there are three first-round picks and one second-round pick.

Admirals among the top five playoff scorers

player Old Points Elaborated

Zachary L'Heureux



No. 27, 2021

Yegor Afanasyev



No. 45, 2019

Jusso Parssinen



No. 210, 2019

Joakim Kemell



No. 17, 2022

Fedor Svetchkov



No. 19, 2021

So Houle was right. Not only is it possible, it's actually happening right now.

How did the admirals do this?

“We have a younger group of forwards, but I would say they are very talented,” Admirals coach Karl Taylor said in a phone interview Thursday. “We have a lot of top picks on our team, so the talent is very high. How do we deal with our youth? Step one is our leadership group.”

That would be defensemen Kevin Gravel and Roland McKeown, forward Cal O'Reilly and goalie Troy Grosenick. Gravel and McKeown have both won a Calder Cup elsewhere, O'Reilly has played nearly 1,000 AHL games and another 154 in the NHL, and Grosenick is a local with more than 300 AHL games under his belt.

“We've been fortunate to have some older players in the dressing room who have been around for a long time, are understanding and willing to mentor some of the younger players. That's a really crucial aspect,” Taylor said.

This is something Houle has already identified as a need for the Rocket. But what's most important to Taylor is the success these veterans have already experienced, whether in the form of AHL playoff success or simply a wealth of games in the league.

Last offseason, the key experienced free agents the Canadiens brought to Laval on two-way contracts were forwards Lias Andersson and Philippe Maillet and defenseman Brady Keeper. Andersson was drafted high but has otherwise not been particularly successful in North America and has three AHL playoff games under his belt. The same goes for Keeper, whose season has been hampered by injuries. Maillet came from the KHL, where he made the 2022 Gagarin Cup final with Magnitogorsk, but had played eight AHL playoff games and two NHL games with the Capitals in the previous five seasons.

Perhaps seeking out players with previous AHL success, as they did with the Admirals, could be a guideline for the Rocket this summer.

“I think we have to find a middle ground and I think that's what we plan to do as an organization, have a good mix of both (veterans and young players),” Houle said. “You don't want a veteran who probably won't be playing in the NHL anytime soon to get in the way of a young player. That hinders development. So there's a middle ground that we're going to find. The organization is aware of that, I'm aware of that, and we want to make sure that we put a really good product on the ice for our fans in Laval, who are very important to us.

“I'm pretty confident we'll find a middle ground to get the right players.”

The other important factor for the Admirals' younger players this season that Taylor mentioned is something that is not very replicable. On December 31, 2023, the Admirals lost 4-3 to the Rockford IceHogs. Their next loss came on February 25, after a 19-game winning streak to start the calendar year that caught the attention of the entire hockey world.

“That accelerated the growth of our youth because they had so much fun enjoying some of the articles and the media attention,” Taylor said. “It just grew and became something. It wasn't playoffs, obviously, but it was a nice in-season thing that the group was really focused on. We didn't talk about it much, but let's be honest, we all knew it was happening when we went through it, and I think it was a pseudo-playoff run for us.

“It gave them the ability to believe and understand that they can do it and that I can be a good player at this level. And when that happens, the belief grows very quickly as we look toward the playoffs.”

Of course, a 19-game winning streak isn't something you can count on when developing young players, but it does show the impact a regular-season winning streak can have on a group of young players navigating the often choppy waters of the AHL. And now, these young players are in important games, having already avoided elimination three times after trailing 2-0 in their first-round series against the Texas Stars.

“It's a great situation for the Nashville Predators,” Taylor said. “We have a young forward group that is excelling at the most important time of the season.”

The challenge for the Canadiens is not to perfectly replicate the Admirals' game, but they must create a similarly successful environment for the development of their young players, as the team will once again be quite young. In fact, it will probably be even younger than this season's team.

In that sense, bringing Houle back was a no-brainer. He has proven he can move players from Laval to Montreal relatively seamlessly, something he regularly gets praise for in St. Louis. He has been willing to use young players in important situations, knowing that the result might suffer but development won't. And he is a popular coach with his players, young and old.

“He's a player-coach,” said Rocket defenseman Tobie Paquette-Bisson, an AHL veteran who has coached Mailloux and David Reinbacher this season and needs a new contract. “I think it's always like people say: He's there for the players, he's easy to talk to, everyone loves him.”

“You'll never hear a player not liking him. I think he's a really good fit for the Rockets.”

(Top photo: Minas Panagiotakis / Getty Images)