Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre claws his way towards the NHL
Way back on March 20, of 1996, then Buffalo Sabres General Manager John Muckler may have pulled off a deal that in time could rank as one of the Sabres’ ten best ever. Little used winger Yuri Khmylev was dealt to St. Louis Blues for a prospect and a 2nd round draft pick. The draft pick (the first pick in the second round, #27 overall), turned out to be Buffalo’s current top prospect, defensemen Cory Sarich. The prospect was a little known defensemen, from the Quebec Major Junior League, by the name of Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre. Don Luce (the Sabres director of player personnel) felt he was getting a player that had size and a lot of growth potential to go along with very good hockey skills.
To the fans, the deal was treated without much fan fair, as no player would be coming to Buffalo any time soon. The Sabres were looking towards the future, and that future would soon include a new arena and new uniforms, which would go along with the new coach (Ted Nolan) and his the hard working, team oriented attitude.
In juniors Jean-Luc was a dependable defensemen who had good two way abilities. Though most scouts were fairly certain that Grand-Pierre would project out to be a 5th a 6th defensemen in the NHL at best, he also brought several good qualities. First was his size. At around 6-foot-3, and over 200 pounds,, he had the size scouts desire. Good natural hockey sense, which as most scouts will tell you, can’t be taught (Hockey sense can basically be described as a player understanding and knowledge of hockey. Knowing how to move the puck, when to do, when to skate to open space, etc.). Jean-Luc also showed leadership skills in juniors. Lastly, he showed signs, but not consistently, of being a very good skater.
Once he arrived in Rochester, opinions quickly began to change as it was very evident even to a hockey novice that Jean-Luc had more to offer the organization. Grand-Pierre was not going to be satisfied with being labeled as average. Though some felt he had skating deficiencies, Grand-Pierre showed a very fluid ability to move his feet. His willingness to take a hit to make the play, and his desire to drop the gloves and stand up for a teammate were somewhat unexpected. He also showed a very good physical side to his game.
With Grand-Pierre, you get few fancy or flashy plays, just safe smart hockey. Move the puck up along the wall, play strong positional hockey and protect the goaltender when needed. The “defensive project” was a lot more steady and complete a player than the typical rookie defensemen. He was also a lot more poise and control, quite simply Grand-Pierre was a lot better than anyone had hoped. He was better than the sum of all his parts.
Following his strong 1997-98 season, wherein he led Rochester with 211 penalty minutes, many people including myself thought he was primed for a run at Bob Boughner’s roster spot. The Sabres had lost their seventh defensemen to Nashville in the expansion draft and they wanted to promote from within. In the end a poor training camp took its’ toll and Buffalo signed veteran James Patrick to fill the void. Jean-Luc ended up back in Rochester. His early played showed the signs of disappointment from not making the Sabres roster, however, he quickly turned his play around, focus to the task at hand and since then he has showed why his stock has risen so fast.
In late December, Jean-Luc’s steady play was rewarded as he was named to the AHL All-Star team (Team Canada). During the all star weekend he sent shock waves throughout the league when he won the AHL fastest skater competition. Many were shocked to see him selected for that skill. Philadelphia Phantom coach Bill Barber asked his team in the afternoon warm up to sign up for the event they wanted to do, “I put my name in for the hardest shot but I was nervous about the turns in the fastest skater,” Grand-Pierre said.
When Jean-Luc failed to volunteer, Barber picked him noting “Every time we play against you it looks like you’re flying.”
When he went out to run his lap, AHL League Commissioner David Andrews said “when Jean-Luc came out for his turn I turned to my wife and said, ‘Who made that pick (to be one of the three participants from the Canadian team)?’ I was amazed.”
Grand-Pierre then out and ran his lap in 14.056 seconds. That time ended up being almost one-half second faster than Peter Bondra (Washington Capitals) ran to win the NHL faster man title.
“I knew I had a shot (at being the fastest skater), even though I was kind of nervous,” Grand- Pierre said. “I was really excited when I heard my time,” he continued, “and when I found out I was one of the fastest in the AHL, it was really a great feeling, especially since I’m a defenseman.”
Right after that, Jean-Luc finished second in the hardest shot competition, posting a shot at 94.6 mph.
When the night was over, one unnamed scout was quoted saying “Grand-Pierre’s value as a prospect definitely increased.”
The next night, Grand-Pierre impressed the scouts and many fans again, showing off his skating ability in the game. Though he didn’t register a point, which wasn’t surprising since he has only has 7 points on the season (4G & 3A) and 17 in his entire professional career (8G & 9A), many people now are sure Grand-Pierre will end up in the NHL very soon. Some think he will end up there this year, as Buffalo may trade him to bring in help for the playoff push. If that’s what happens, so be it, for now Jean-Luc will keep playing the same game and trying to prove he belongs.
STRANGE FACT: It has been just under three years since that trade and most things have changed dramatically. Both General Mangers who were involved in that trade (Muckler and Mike Keanan) are now elsewhere, and the only team directing seeing the benefits from that trade is the Rochester Americans. Though I think it is safe to assume Buffalo won that deal.