Veteran Brandon Gignac has blossomed into Rocket's leading scorer

Veteran Brandon Gignac has blossomed into Rocket's leading scorer

Veteran Brandon Gignac has blossomed into Rocket's leading scorer

Veteran has spent last three seasons in Laval and has the support and trust of head coach Jean-François Houle.

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It might have been the best sleepless night of Brandon Gignac‘s career.

It was early March 2019, the clock about to strike midnight, when the phone rang at Gignac’s apartment. A young forward playing for Binghamton in the AHL at the time, Gignac was sleeping so soundly his girlfriend had to answer. When she woke him up, informing Gignac he had been recalled by New Jersey and was going to make his NHL debut the following night at Madison Square Garden against the New York Rangers, he couldn’t get back to sleep.

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Nor did he rest the next afternoon, after making the three-hour drive to New Jersey, even after awakening at 6 a.m.

“I played that night, but honestly, it’s hard to remember because you’re in the moment,” Gignac said after the Laval Rocket’s Wednesday morning practice at Place Bell. “It’s kind of blurry but I was really excited.”

The rookie pre-game solo warm-up lap wasn’t yet in existence, although Gignac was able to participate without wearing a helmet. The game was uneventful for him, limited to one shot and barely more than nine minutes of ice time in the Devils’ 4-2 loss.

“I was pretty young at the time … 21 … and it was like a dream,” he remembered. “You just try to do your best while you’re out there. It’s one of those moments you’ll remember for the rest of your life. Madison Square Garden for your first game … it’s big. But it was hard.”

The Repentigny native hasn’t returned to the NHL since that cameo appearance. He was even demoted to play 35 games with Jacksonville of the ECHL in 2020-21 because of a personality conflict with head coach Mark Dennehy, now the Devils’ chief amateur scout. Gignac, 5-foot-11 and 194 pounds, was New Jersey’s third-round (80th overall) draft choice in 2016 following a decent, if unspectacular, junior career in Shawinigan.

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“For sure I thought it was the start of something big,” he said. “When I returned (to the minors), I still played good but, the year after, I felt like … not that they gave up on me, I just wasn’t the fit for them. It was hard to (hear) as a player. You think you’re getting there. After that, the thing with my coach, I was trying to play but, trying to get better, but when the rope’s really tight, it’s hard to perform. It wasn’t a good fit. I don’t know if it was because I’m French? We don’t know.”

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Requiring a change of scenery, Gignac signed with the Canadiens organization in July 2021 and is now in his third season with the Rocket. He has called his time in Laval a new lease on life. For starters, he gets along well with head coach Jean-François Houle, who has put Gignac on the team’s top line, flanked by promising rookie Joshua Roy and Emil Heineman.

Gignac is the Rocket’s leading scorer, with seven goals and 22 points through 23 games. He has scored twice on the power play, once while short-handed and has 61 shots. He’s 12th overall in AHL scoring.

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“It shows you that our young guys are good but still have a ways to go,” Houle said. “Gignac’s playing with confidence. The coach likes him; that helps. If somebody likes you in an organization you have a better chance. He can skate. He’s a good kid. He’s easy to coach; he listens. Those are all great things to have.

“He’s more consistent. He’s using his speed and he’s got confidence right now. Maybe he’s back to where he should be, when he was younger. Then he fell out of favour. Now he’s back up. That’s part of growing as a pro.”

It’s no secret the Canadiens have been ravaged by injuries at the forward position, with Tanner Pearson the latest, sidelined 4-6 weeks with an upper-body injury. Gignac probably monitors what is transpiring in Montreal and remains cautiously optimistic he might be on the precipice of an NHL return.

Whether that scenario plays out, he has changed his career perspective, no longer worrying about every potential error, instead believing everything happens for a reason.

“For right now, I’m really happy with all the decisions I’ve made,” Gignac said. “To come here in Laval, with J-F as a coach, it’s really good for me. I think he trusts me. When you have a coach that trusts you, you just make plays. Hockey’s all about timing.

“When I started playing pro, I was so hard on myself. I don’t think it’s the right way. Hockey’s a sport of mistakes. You’re going to make some. It’s how you react to it. I’ve grown a lot as a player and person.”

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