BUFFALO – Sabres defenseman John Gilmour found a team in – of all places – suburban Cleveland, about a nine-hour drive from his home outside of Montreal.
“Kind of a no-name school,” Gilmour said Friday following a session of training camp inside KeyBank Center.
The prep school willing to give a no-name hockey prospect an opportunity had a fitting name: Gilmour Academy.
“I wasn’t playing at the highest level for a 16-year-old, that’s for sure,” said Gilmour, a speedy, puck-moving defender.
Still, simply earning a uniform was significant for Gilmour. In his mid-teens, he had only grown to about 5-foot-6, meaning he was very undersized for a defenseman.
The youngster’s talents hadn’t attracted much attention, so he contacted prep schools to find a chance to play and continue his education.
Gilmour said the academy offered him spot in 2010 after the school’s coach, John Malloy, spotted him at a showcase tournament.
“You could call me a late bloomer,” Gilmour said. “I didn’t get drafted in the Quebec Major Junior League, so I had to take another route.”
Today, Gilmour, 26, is competing for an NHL roster spot. Fresh off a huge AHL campaign, the Sabres signed him to a one-year, one-way contract worth $700,000 on July 1.
“It’s a franchise that’s been on the rise, a lot of potential, new coach, a GM,” Gilmour said of why he chose the Sabres. “It just seems like they’re heading in the right direction.”
Don’t think Gilmour is automatically ticketed for the Rochester Americans. He enjoyed a strong preseason debut Monday, scoring a goal and two points in a 5-4 overtime win against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Sabres have three defensemen sidelined by injuries, so Gilmour, who played 33 games with the New York Rangers, could earn a spot out of camp.
“I feel like everybody’s (got) kind of the same chance,” he said. “There’s a new coach and everybody’s trying to make that first impression.”
Right away, Sabres coach Ralph Krueger noticed Gilmour’s personality.
“He’s very open, a very strong communicator,” Krueger said.
The 6-foot, 188-pound Gilmour began his unique path to the NHL in Ohio. He parlayed his prep opportunity into a gig with the junior United States Hockey League’s Cedar Rapids RoughRiders.
“Then I kind of grew a little bit and kind of found my game,” he said.
He added: “That’s when I started getting offers from Division 1 and I realized I could do something here if people are offering me scholarships.”
Following one season in Cedar Rapids, Gilmour played four years of college hockey at Providence, where he won a national championship in 2015.
“Not the typical route for a guy that comes out of Montreal,” he said of his journey.
Gilmour said he had focused on playing NCAA hockey and never thought much about the pros.
“Once I was there and I saw guys on my team moving up to the pros, I said, ‘Hey, I can do that, too,’” he said.
In his last year of draft eligibility in 2013, the Calgary Flames grabbed Gilmour in the seventh round, 198th overall. After they relinquished his rights, he signed with the Rangers.
Gilmour struggled as an AHL rookie with the hapless, 24-win Hartford Wolf Pack in 2016-17, compiling a ghastly minus-39 rating.
But he quickly improved enough to receive a 28-game look from the Rangers in 2017-18.
“It’s a testament to the coaching staff and the Rangers organization for believing in me,” Gilmour said. “They could’ve sent me down, they could’ve cut me at any time, but they stuck with me.”
Last season, Gilmour morphed into an AHL All-Star, scoring a whopping 20 goals and 54 points in 70 games.
Among AHL defensemen, only Zach Redmond, an Amerks star, scored more goals (21) and Aaron Ness more points (55).
Gilmour’s speed and ability to join the rush buoy his offense.
“And when I’m up in the rush, (I can) get back when the puck transitions the other way,” he said.
Despite his breakout season, the rebuilding Rangers rewarded Gilmour with just five late-season games.
“It’s frustrating at times, especially when you’re having a good year in the minor leagues, you’re just always waiting to go up,” he said. “I got up eventually, but it was a little late. …
“I’m still grateful for the chance. I knew I would have an opportunity in the summer.”