The professional tryout is hockey’s version of an audition, providing candidates with another opportunity to defy the odds or extend careers.
It’s not a place for the faint of heart. And it was likely the furthest scenario from which Éric Gélinas figured to find himself after being a second-round (54th overall) draft choice of the New Jersey Devils in 2009.
“When August came and I hadn’t received any calls, I was freaking out a little bit,” said Gélinas, a defenceman with the Laval Rocket, who signed a one-year, one-way contract with the Canadiens in October after being invited to camp on the dreaded pro tryout.
“Going into the tryout, not knowing what was going to happen, not knowing where I was going to end up, that was probably the most stressful moment of my life, for sure,” he added Tuesday, following practice at Place Bell.
At 6-foot-4 and 223 pounds, Gélinas appears to have the stature. Indeed, he has played 189 NHL games, mostly for the Devils, along with 33 others with Colorado after the Avalanche acquired him at the trade deadline two years ago for a third-round draft choice.
There’s no doubt Gélinas possesses some offensive talent, having scoring 14 goals and 55 points between New Jersey and Colorado. In 43 games for the Rocket, he has nine goals and 15 points. But he also has a plus-minus rating of minus-6, admitting both defensive skill and awareness in his own zone held him back.
As well, the Devils were struggling at the time and went through coaching changes. Every time a new body came behind the bench, Gélinas said, more and more flaws were found in his game.
“I never really learned and nobody taught me the specific things they were asking,” said the 26-year-old native of Vanier, Ont. “I knew what they were saying, I just didn’t know how to do it.”
It was Patrick Roy who wanted Gélinas in Colorado, aware of the prospect’s exploits while playing for Lewiston, Chicoutimi and Saint John of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. But then Roy resigned in 2016 as the team’s coach and vice-president (hockey operations) and Gélinas lost his biggest ally.
Gélinas divided last season between the Avalanche and their AHL affiliate in San Antonio, Tex. An impending restricted free agent last summer, he wasn’t tendered a qualifying contract.
Gélinas said one other team, which he refused to identify, was willing to bring him in on a tryout basis. He and his agent figured the Canadiens were the better fit. He played three exhibition games for Montreal, scoring once with four penalty minutes.
The transition under Laval coach Sylvain Lefebvre has been slow and, at times, painful Gélinas said, the organization wanting him to become a more complete player. But after a slow start while he cut his teeth, he said he’s starting to feel more confident in his game and understanding his responsibilities.
An injury to fellow blue-liner Matt Taormina, the Rocket’s most-productive defenceman (four goals, 40 points in 46 games) has provided Gélinas with more playing time and an increased power-play role.
“He has to work on his overall game, to make the right decisions,” Lefebvre said. “We all know he has an NHL shot. He’s a big piece of the puzzle and we’re asking him to play a lot of minutes. From the start of the season to where he is now, he’s made tremendous improvements.
“There were some big hopes for him when he came out of junior. Things didn’t work out the way it was planned. When he came here, it was to get him back to where he needs to be. We needed a bit of time for him to buy into what we wanted. We’re trying to bring him to a point where he’s a more reliable, two-way defenceman.”
Unless something drastically changes during the next several months, Gélinas realizes he’ll be staring free agency in the face again this summer. While a trip overseas or a stint in the KHL will always be options, he hasn’t lost hope of further NHL time. Not only does Gélinas still believe he’s young enough, he also said he has become a more complete player.
“I played at that level, not knowing what I do now. I can be better than I was. I know so much more on the ice,” he said. “It’s not too late. I think I’m still at a young age to figure out how I need to play to be the defenceman I need to be to get up there. I’ve grown as a player. I know I’ll be a better player this summer than I was.”
Notes — Along with missing Taormina, the Rocket is still without leading scorer Chris Terry and forwards Yannick Veilleux and Niki Petti. But Veilleux and Terry are close to returning, Lefebvre said. … Laval entertains Belleville Wednesday night.