The story sounded familiar to John Gilmour. The 26-year-old was training in a Montreal gym Tuesday when a teenage hockey player lamented about not making a top AAA midget team.
The boy was discouraged and frustrated but found the advice he was seeking. At 16, Gilmour was not drafted in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. With few options of playing competitively in his hometown, he decided to email a number of prep school coaches in the United States.
Teams in Montreal weren’t eager to take a 5-foot-7 defenseman. Those emails eventually led him to Gilmour Academy in Gates Mills, Ohio, and began Gilmour’s journey to the United States Hockey League, Providence College and, eventually, the Buffalo Sabres.
The unusual road to the National Hockey League partially explains why Gilmour is eager for Sabres training camp to begin in September.
“It sounded like something special is brewing in Buffalo, and I feel like at this stage in my career, it is something I want to be a part of,” Gilmour, who signed a one-year, one-way contract with the Sabres last week, told The Buffalo News in a phone interview Tuesday. “It’s a team I want to make. At the end of the day, based on what they were telling me, I feel like it will be a good chance for me here.”
Gilmour could still be viewed as undersized for a defenseman — listed at 6-foot, 194 pounds — but he’s no longer overlooked. He has played 33 NHL games with the New York Rangers, scoring two goals among five points with a minus-14 rating.
The former seventh-round draft pick also became the first rookie defenseman in Rangers history to score a game-winning overtime goal, accomplishing the feat against the Vancouver Canucks on Feb. 28, 2018.
The left-shot defenseman played 28 games with the Rangers in 2017-18, only to receive a five-game stint with the team last season, despite being one of the top players in the American Hockey League with the Hartford Wolf Pack.
Gilmour ranked second among all AHL defensemen in goals (20) – which was a franchise single-season record for a defenseman – and points (54), trailing only Rochester’s Zach Redmond (21) in the former category. He also was named an AHL all-star for a second consecutive season.
Since signing with the Rangers as a free agent in August 2016, Gilmour has impressed with his puck-moving ability and speed – he won the AHL’s CCM fastest skater competition during all-star festivities in 2017-18 – but he showed last season that he has evolved into a reliable two-way defenseman.
“Comfort definitely played into it, with it being my third year,” said Gilmour, who won an NCAA Championship with Providence in 2015. “I was more familiar with the organization and coaches. I was playing more on the power play and felt more comfortable with my skills. That comes with the preparation I put in [during] the summer. I worked really hard, and I was lucky to score a few more goals than the year before. Felt really good out there.”
Yet Gilmour was not recalled to the NHL by the Rangers until March 19, three weeks after they were sellers at the trade deadline. He appeared in five of their final 10 games, averaging 16:05 of ice time and recording a minus-3 rating.
Gilmour was credited with seven blocked shots in a 2-1 win at Toronto on March 23, and two nights later, he had three shots on goal in a 5-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. The performances illustrated how Gilmour had progressed since making his professional debut.
Gilmour had a minus-39 rating as a rookie with Hartford in 2016-17 — the Wolf Pack were the worst team in the AHL with a minus-86 goal differential — as he struggled to adjust to the grind of a 76-game regular-season schedule.
Despite showing progress, Gilmour did not appear to be in the Rangers’ roster plans for 2019-20, and he received interest from around the NHL when teams began negotiating with unrestricted free agents June 23.
“I learned a lot about myself as a player,” Gilmour said of his experience with the Rangers. ” I had some good games in there and also had some bad games. I learned I can play in the league. I can stick in the league and have an impact on games. There were some games I felt I played over 20 minutes a night and that’s significant. I learned a lot in that sense and that the margin for error is slimmer in the national league, so you have to tighten up defensively.”
Gilmour will again face long odds to make the Sabres’ roster out of training camp in September. As of now, the team is expected to have five other left-handed defensemen — Rasmus Dahlin, Jake McCabe, Marco Scandella, Matt Hunwick and Lawrence Pilut — who can be penciled into the lineup or will compete for a roster spot.
Pilut will miss the start of the season after undergoing shoulder surgery this offseason, which could open the door for Gilmour to make the team. To prepare, Gilmour has continued watching video clips, engages in on- and off-ice workouts in Montreal, and practices visualization, picturing himself contributing in the NHL next season.
The days of sending emails trying to find a team are over. Now, Gilmour plans to take advantage of his latest opportunity.
“I’m very confident and also excited,” he said. “It’s a new beginning for me, a new organization. There’s going to be a lot of new faces and lessons to learn. I’m very confident, working really hard. I’m healthy. I know there are a couple more months this offseason, so I’m going to continue this pattern and get better. Try to go into training camp with as much momentum as possible and try to make an impression.”