Summer of hard work paying off for Gulls’ Groulx

Photo: Abbotsford Canucks

📝 by Patrick Williams

As the San Diego Gulls prepared this week to head out of town for a key road game, forward Benoit-Olivier Groulx felt that the struggling club had started to move in the right direction, even if the American Hockey League standings said otherwise.

With a new Anaheim Ducks management regime overseeing an offseason makeover in San Diego, the Gulls entered the 2022-23 season owning high hopes to contend in the always-treacherous Pacific Division.

Clearly a 3-7-0-0 start was not what Groulx and the Gulls had in mind. Last weekend the Central Division-leading Milwaukee Admirals grabbed back-to-back 3-1 wins on San Diego ice. However, Groulx did see a few positive signs with the club’s defensive-zone play and transition game.

“It’s been frustrating, to be honest,” Groulx said on Monday before the Gulls departed for a road date with the Henderson Silver Knights. “We know we have a good team. We know we have the players to win in [this] league.

“I think we’re trending in the right direction now.”

It would appear so. On Tuesday evening, Groulx (2g) and linemates Rocco Grimaldi (1g, 3a) and Justin Kirkland (1g, 2a) had big nights as the Gulls earned a 7-0 win in Henderson, ending a three-game skid.

Groulx has grabbed seven points (three goals, four assists) in his past seven games and has totaled four goals and five assists in 11 contests overall this season. He split last season between San Diego and Anaheim, picking up a goal and two assists over his first 18 NHL games.

Going into his third pro season, Groulx has seen plenty of change. Taken in the second round of the 2018 NHL Draft by the Ducks, he played for head coach Kevin Dineen during the abbreviated 2020-21 AHL campaign and Joel Bouchard last season before Roy Sommer took over this summer. Groulx, the son of Syracuse Crunch head coach Ben Groulx, long ago grew accustomed to different voices during his four seasons in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Playing with Halifax and then Moncton, he played for five different head coaches.

“Fun fact: I never had the same coaches two years in a row,” Groulx quipped.

Another summer of hard work is paying off for Groulx, whose offseason partners included Laval Rocket defenseman Nicolas Beaudin as well as Winnipeg Jets forward Pierre-Luc Dubois. At 6-foot-2 and 198 pounds, Groulx focused on his puck-protection skills, a key area that young prospects must hone, as well as his play around the net. And as with most players, improving his speed received attention as well.

After that first season with the Gulls, Groulx came away realizing that playing in the AHL would require him to upgrade his skating.

“Over the past two years, I think I’ve improved a lot,” Groulx said of his skating. “I think it’s showing right now. I’m beating more guys one-on-one with my speed. I really like my development over the past three years, but I still think I’ve got a lot to improve on.”

The Ducks took notice in training camp. When they assigned Groulx to San Diego, he was sent on his way with a mandate. As a third-year player, he was past the early growing pains and capable of taking on a bigger role. Along with his ability to generate offensively, penalty-killing work is an area of priority.

“I think they see me as a leader this year, and I really want to grab that role and improve myself personally,” Groulx continued.

Helping to dig the Gulls out of their early-season slump is one such test for Groulx and the rest of the club’s leadership group. Tuesday’s convincing win in Henderson was a good step for a team that faces another significant challenge back at Pechanga Arena on Friday night against the Bakersfield Condors.

“I think it’s gonna take a little bit for us to really have that chemistry as a team, and it’s going to take a little bit of time for us to trust one another all around the ice,” Groulx said.

“But I really think when [we] start scoring a lot, having more confidence with the puck, and making more plays, we’re going to be a force, especially in our division.”