by Matt Weller | AHL On The Beat
For any professional sports team, players have specific roles. The offensive weapons, shot-blocking specialists, puck-moving defensemen and special-teams extraordinaires all act as critical components in the success of any professional hockey club.
One of the most crucial of those roles is a strong defensive-minded forward who is highly trusted on his own end of the ice. Whether it’s killing a high-stakes penalty or winning a pivotal faceoff in the defensive zone, the two-way forward is a common item on the wish list for all of hockey’s most successful coaches.
What isn’t common is for that player to be a rookie. However, first-year San Diego Gulls forward Benoit-Olivier Groulx is not your typical rookie.
“You build a level of responsibility,” said Gulls head coach Kevin Dineen of his young centerman. “In our business, you build this foundation that gives him the opportunity to get on the ice when the net is empty. To get on the ice the last minute of the period. To take important faceoffs and get better at faceoffs like he has.”
Groulx came to San Diego after completing a distinguished junior hockey career. The former first overall pick of the 2016 QMJHL Draft, Groulx skated in 250 games for Halifax (2016-19) and Moncton (2019-20), scoring 105 goals and 244 points. Despite averaging nearly a point per game, it was his play on the other end of the ice that earned the Gatineau, Quebec native the 2020 Guy Carbonneau Trophy as the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s best defensive forward.
His strong defensive play, uncommon in a rookie forward, earned Groulx the trust of his coaches just weeks into his professional career. He is now consistently on the ice during the final shifts of games, including the waning moments of a one-goal contest.
On Mar. 27, San Diego led division rival Tucson by one goal, and found itself on the penalty kill with the Roadrunners netminder pulled and 25 seconds remaining in regulation. With a critical faceoff facing a two-man disadvantage, the Gulls turned to Groulx and the rookie delivered, winning a draw that led to a game-clinching clear of the defensive zone.
“I think he has an awareness of how you have to play,” Dineen explained. “He’s a good listener and a smart kid who understands that he’s earning more ice time and more quality ice time against really good players. When you get put in that role, there are a lot of ways you can handle it. He’s one of those guys who really gets excited to go out there and play against good players and to have that kind of responsibility.”
The affinity for success in his own end of the ice started at a young age for the now 6-foot-2, 194-pound forward. He had a great teacher, too – his father, Ben Groulx, is the coach of the American Hockey League’s Syracuse Crunch, with 241 career AHL wins – and 460 in the QMJHL – to his name.
“He was a young player that was very interested in the game of hockey and getting better,” said the father and coach. “He was asking a lot of questions and watching a lot of things. He was very independent, not waiting for me to do to things. He would do it on his own.”
The younger Groulx says the importance of utilizing a strong defensive style of play came naturally to him.
“I remember, in pee-wee, my dad would ask why are you always between your two defensemen? And I would say I don’t want to get scored on,” the rookie fondly remembers. “All I could hear when I was younger was guys being really good offensively and it would take a lot of time for them to learn the defensive side of the game. So it was always something I wanted to learn very fast in my career. I think it’s paying dividends right now at the pro level.”
While the father and son both love the game and are succeeding at its one of its highest levels, their relationship away from the rink has little do with their shared profession.
“Your son doesn’t want you be his coach. Your son wants you to be his dad,” Ben explained, “It’s his career and he’s in charge of it. He knows what he has to do. If he asks, I’m going to tell him, but overall, it’s him, his coaches and the Anaheim Ducks, they work together.”
The duo may not discuss professional matters at home, but those around the 21-year-old are well aware the apple did not fall far from the tree.
“He has an awareness of how he can have personal success, but also, more importantly, team success,” Dineen said. “He’s developing at a very solid pace.”
Part of that development is an increased focus on helping his team offensively.
“The first six games I was still trying to feel out the league a little bit,” Groulx said. “I was trying to adapt my game to it because obviously there are bigger, faster, smarter guys here than in juniors. The last ten games I have figured it out and I’m getting some points.”
The adjustment is working. After going scoreless in his first five games, Groulx found his stride after scoring his first career AHL goal Feb. 17 against Bakersfield.
“He said to me the other day, ‘Hey, you know I can play some on offense too,’” Dineen said at the time. “I said, ‘Let’s go see it.’ He showed us tonight.”
Groulx now has 12 points in his last 16 games, including three multi-point efforts. He leads the Gulls with a plus-8 rating and two shorthanded points, while also pacing club rookies in goals (6), assists (7) and points (13).
Ever humble, he praised those around him.
“I’ve been very fortunate to play with some very good players,” Groulx said. “They’ve made some great plays to me for my goals and put the puck in the back of the net. It’s been a great team effort for my points.”
With just over a month left in the regular season, Groulx will play a key role as the Gulls fight for the Pacific Division crown. Dineen says he thinks it will be just the start of a long career for the 21-year-old.
“I’m a believer that he’ll have a long and successful career contributing at both ends of the ice.”
In the meantime, Dad is happy to watch from a distance with pride.
“I’m supporting my son. And I love my role.”