Jeremy Groleau's draft year didn't go quite as planned. After finding a spot on NHL Central Scouting's watch list to start the season, the 6-foot-3, 200 pound defensive defenseman from St-Nicolas, Quebec found himself off it in the spring and ultimately didn't hear his name called last June. Turns out, it was a blessing in disguise.
"As soon as the draft is over, we'll size up what we got against what we need to fill roster spots at development camp and rookie camp while we're still at the draft table and we realized we needed a defenseman," explained Devils assistant general manager Tom Fitzgerald. "We take a look at our draft list and there are always a couple guys on there that don't get selected by anyone and so we looked at the defensemen that were still available and there was Jeremy.
"As far as free agents go, we like to save room on our development camp roster for the college guys because they can't come to rookie camp in September," he continued, "So the junior guys have a better shot at coming to rookie camp, than development camp, but we all liked Jeremy a lot. We called his agent and invited him to our camp in July."
For Groleau, it was just the shot of confidence he had been looking for.
"I was hoping to get drafted. Like every player, I had dreamed about it," the 19-year-old explained. "But I had a hard season, more mental than anything else. There's a lot of pressure on you and you don't want to make any mistakes and I was so worried about it that I ended up making more and then I couldn't shake them and I'd be thinking about it during the next shift or the next game and I just had a hard time moving on and getting my focus back to be at my best for the next opportunity.
"I had already made the decision to work on that over the summer," he continued. "I realized that I could have all the skill in the world, but if I wasn't as sharp mentally, I wouldn't be at my best. I was disappointed not to be drafted, but was prepared to work hard that summer, be better this year with Chicoutimi and hopefully be selected the following year, but once I was invited to come to camp by New Jersey, everything changed. You just need a team to see some potential in you. And, obviously, to have New Jersey calling me and wanting me at their camp… it was an amazing feeling."
Pierre Mondou and Andre Savard scout the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League the most for the Devils and had watched Groleau grow into his role as a shut down defenseman for the Chicoutimi Sagueneens the previous three years.
"When he first got to Chicoutimi, he was an offensive defenseman, but he was young and there were some older guys who were ahead of him and he didn't get a lot of playing time," Mondou explained. "So he started to work harder on his defensive game and realized that was really his strength and how he could be most useful to the team, but I also think that his experience as an offensive defenseman has helped him play better when he has the puck. He makes a good first pass and is able to join the rush if he needs to. He's not a superior skater, but he's gotten better. He is more of an explosive skater than fast, but he can perform well and keep up. His number one quality is that he's reliable in his own zone and plays a lot of minutes against the other teams' best players.
"We have a lot of offensive defensemen within our organization and we felt like we needed to have more defensive defensemen," Mondou continued. "That's why we took Xavier Bernard in the fourth round that year and added Jeremy after the draft. We knew we needed to do better at developing big defensemen like them who can stay at home and do a good job shutting other teams down."
Groleau went into development camp last year with zero expectations except to do his very best and try to earn an invite to rookie camp in September.
"I really didn't know what to expect. I had never been to an NHL camp before and I wasn't one of the drafted players and wasn't sure how I'd fit in, but it was amazing. All the guys were great and I ended up spending a lot of time with Colby Sissons," he said. "I knew he had been in my position and was undrafted, but came to camp and earned a contract and I wanted to know if what I was going through was the same for him and what I could expect.
"It was another mental challenge for me because you don't really know how they see you because you weren't drafted and didn't get to have that conversation. You just have to work. And every day is gonna be hard because you're getting closer and closer to going home, and you don't really know what's happening or how you're doing or if you'll be invited back. So he just told me to play my game because that's why they invited me and try to do my best and it might pay off at the end. So that's what I tried to focus on."
The more Groleau played the more eyebrows the 6-foot-3, 200 pound blueliner raised.
"We saw a good sized defenseman that could get around the ice pretty well and played the game with very good details," Fitzgerald explained. "He had a good stick when he was defending, was up ice on the rush, scored a beautiful goal in the scrimmage, played with an edge in the corners and in the net front. We told him right after development camp that we wanted him to come to rookie camp and would have a shot at main camp too."
The next six weeks, Groleau tried to utilize the information he learned during development camp to help set him up for success at rookie camp.
"I worked a lot in the gym to get stronger, on my skating to be faster and on my mental game to be more consistent," he explained. "I wasn't drafted and I might not have another opportunity like this so I wanted to make the most of it and go in prepared and make a really good impression."
And that's exactly what he did during the NHL Prospect Challenge in Buffalo in September.
"I saw him at rookie camp and the good news is that he played the best hockey of his life at that camp," Mondou recalled. "Ray [Shero] and Tom [Fitzgerald] and Dan [MacKinnon] were all very happy with what they saw from him and that's why they started thinking about signing him. It would be like getting back one of those draft picks that we traded away to help us make the playoffs last year and selecting Jeremy with it."
As Groleau continued to impress through main camp, Fitzgerald started canvassing the pro scouts, management and the coaches for their opinion of the undrafted invitee asking them all the same question: would you sign a kid like this?
"Everyone liked him. Everyone. And we kept wanting to see more of what he could do against better competition and with every challenge we gave him, he kept impressing us," Fitzgerald explained. "When we sent the first wave of players back to junior, we kept him for a little longer to see what he could do with a smaller talent pool and it just became apparent that this kid was worth signing. Ultimately, we didn't want to let him go and risk losing him to another team in the next draft or someone else signing him as a free agent. We reached out to his agent and got the deal done."
Groleau signed a standard entry level contract and was then returned back to his junior team in Chicoutimi where he continued his development by leading the way for the Sagueneens on the blueline.
"He's definitely a key guy for us," stated Yanick Jean, Chicoutimi's head coach. "He gets the most ice time - 25-27 minutes per night - and gets the toughest assignments against the other teams and is also the most physical player out there as well. He defends really, really well. You can tell he takes pride in it and he's really tough to play against. That might be his biggest asset."
"I'm a good defensive D, but I want to be a great defensive D," he said. "And I also want to show another side of Jeremy Groleau in the offensive zone too. I'm trying to take a couple more risks - nothing crazy. I just want to try to support my teammates on the rush and be smart with the puck in the offensive zone. I want to be a little surprise that way."
Through 57 games this past season, Groleau had eight goals and 15 assists for 23 points, a career high. He says it's all part of adding layers to his game and taking everything to the next level.
"Going to New Jersey's camp really helped me," he explained. "I think it showed that I have the potential to play in the NHL and gave me that little boost of confidence that I needed, but it also showed me exactly what I need to work on in order to make it there and stay there. There's a huge difference between NHL and juniors and now I just got to put in the work - defensively, offensively, skating. I mean everything, right? So, I'm working on all the little details of my game as much as I can."
When his junior season ended, he joined the Devils' AHL team in Binghamton and played in five games earning a goal and an assist.
"Those games really gave me a chance to realize that I can play there and go further with my hockey," he explained. "I felt like a complete player and that I could contribute. I still have some things I need to work on, but I think I did a good job while I was there and learned a lot about how fast and skilled it is at the pro level and were in need to be better. That will help me prepare more this summer."
Nine months after signing his NHL contract, Groleau still feels like he's living the dream, but he knows that dream doesn't happen without a lot of hard work.
"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed when I wasn't drafted, but if you told me then that I'd be signing an NHL contract three months later, there's no chance I would have believed you, but that's exactly what happened," he said with an infectious smile. "I put in a lot of work last summer and I was rewarded for it and it's just an amazing feeling to sign an NHL contract, but that doesn't get me a spot on the team, just a better opportunity to earn one. I've still got a lot of work to do, and I'm really excited for that challenge.
"I want to do everything I can to show them that they made the right decision."