Accustomed to putting up big numbers in his final two seasons with the QMJHL’s Baie-Comeau Drakkar before joining the AHL’s St. John’s IceCaps last fall, Gregoire quickly realized that registering his name on the scoresheet with regularity at the next level wasn’t simply a given.
It was up to the 20-year-old centerman to figure things out on his own, and navigate the inevitable challenges that come with moving up the hockey ladder. That was easier said than done for a player who amassed 35 goals and 69 points in 2013-14, and another 20 goals and 41 points in 2014-15, while also helping to pace the Drakkar to a pair of President’s Cup appearances during his time in the Cote-Nord region.
Last season in the AHL, the opposition held the former Guy Lafleur Award of Excellence winner to just six goals and 11 points in 62 games.
“It’s definitely been an adaptation process,” said Gregoire, who is making his fourth appearance at the Canadiens’ annual Development Camp at the Bell Sports Complex. “Coming from Junior hockey, you could have had good stats and done good things, but the players at the AHL level have done exactly the same things I did, just years before me. It’s all about adjusting your game, discovering your strengths, and trying to listen to the coaches.”
For Gregoire, becoming increasingly comfortable with the pro game also mandated that he change his overall mindset and realize that only time and practice would help him eventually find his rhythm with Sylvain Lefebvre’s squad.
“It’s about accepting the role you’ve been given. At the beginning of the year, I had trouble applying the role that was assigned to me. There was no point trying to aim higher or lower. It was about controlling what I could do, and being the best in my role,” explained the Sherbrooke native, who needed some time to come to terms with what the AHL demanded of him. “Before Christmas, I thought to myself – ‘I’ve always managed to score, so why wouldn’t I be able to do it at this level, too?’ But, you eventually realize that the guys in the AHL, they’re all in the same league as players, no matter where they played before.”
Lighting the lamp aside, Gregoire says he had to become more reliable without the puck as well. That wasn’t a point of emphasis while he was still plying his trade in his home province, but it quickly became necessary when Lefebvre and assistant coaches Donald Dufresne and Nick Carriere became his mentors.
“I’m a reliable guy on the ice, but last year it was really about picking up my game on the defensive side of things. In the Q, no matter what I was doing during a game, I was playing on the power play and on the penalty kill. Last season, you really had to play well to be on the penalty killing unit. I had to battle for a spot,” said Gregoire, who clearly understands the importance of defensive responsibility in his being able to one day become an NHL regular. “On that end, I had to be more consistent with my defensive game.”
Off the ice, Gregoire was forced to adapt to a measure of change, too. Gone were the days of living with billet families as the IceCaps’ No. 37 shared a place in Newfoundland with goaltending prospect Zachary Fucale and fellow former QMJHLer Morgan Ellis.
“It was the first time that I wasn’t being put up somewhere. I made my own food and did my own cleaning around the house. Sometimes, I called my mom to ask her some questions about how to do things. I liked it,” said Gregoire, who fully appreciated his roommate experience. “The chemistry between us – a forward, a defenseman and a goaltender – was good. There wasn’t any competition at home because we had enough competition in terms of hockey. The guys will tell you that I was the chef. I was the one making it all. That’s my thing.”
Now, with three previous development camps and one year of pro hockey under his belt, Gregoire is a young man whose focus is squarely on turning heads in Montreal this time around. He got off to a good start in his first intra-squad game on Sunday, scoring three straight goals in an impressive 8-3 win with the Canadiens’ brass looking on from the stands.
“I’m now in my fourth development camp with the Canadiens. There were players who were drafted after me who are coming along strong. That’s hockey. It’s about internal competition. That doesn’t scare me. I know what I can do and what I can show. This is the first week of July. It’s a good chance to show what we’re capable of,” mentioned Gregoire, who has high expectations for himself for the remainder of camp and on into the 2016-17 season. “The second year pro is where we want to really make a statement. I know what’s expected of me. I just have to perform now.”
And, he firmly believes he’s on the right track to do just that come October.
“At the end of the year, things clicked,” concluded Gregroire, referencing the manner in which he clicked with Mark MacMillan in the latter stages of the season. “I learned to really use the tools I have for the role that the coaches asked me to perform.”
Matt Cudzinowski is a writer for canadiens.com.
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