BRANDON — Of all the fresh faces at last week's Lightning development camp, one of the most important ones will never play in a game.
New AHL Syracuse coach Benoit Groulx, 48, hired in May, got a chance to make a first impression and evaluate players. Apparently, Groulx's reputation preceded him.
"I've heard the stories," wing Adam Erne said, smiling.
The word those who have played for Groulx often use is "strict."
"I'm demanding," Groulx admitted.
But considering the Crunch, plagued by inconsistency, has missed the playoffs two of the past three seasons, having that kind of presence in charge of the Lightning's precious pipeline of prospects could pay off.
"That's kind of what we need," said Erne, who played for Syracuse last season and is likely to start there next season. "It keeps players responsible, keeps guys alert. (Groulx) makes sure you bring your best effort every day. It's like when I played for (Hall of Fame goalie) Patrick Roy (in juniors). If you're working hard, you've got nothing to worry about."
Groulx's style has worked. He led his hometown Gatineau Olympiques of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League to three league championships in 13 years (2000-08, 2010-16), racking up 460 wins. He also brought home a gold medal for Canada coaching its World Junior Championship team in 2014-15. Crunch general manager Julien BriseBois said the coaching change was all about what Groulx can do, not what fired Rob Zettler didn't.
Groulx, who coached AHL Rochester from 2008-2010, had been looking to get back to the pro level for a couple of years and said he's way more ready for it than he was then.
"The timing," he said, "is perfect."
Groulx is brutally honest in assessing players. And especially himself.
Groulx, who never played in the NHL, played 10 years in France and one in Belgium.
"I don't know if I would have liked myself as a player," Groulx said, chuckling. "I was a playmaker, not a good shot. Good vision, good two-way player. I was a bad skater."
Groulx said he attended the New York Rangers' training camp in 1997 but knew for a while he wanted to get into coaching.
It was in his blood. His late father, Gilles, was a longtime coach in the Quebec Major Junior League; Benoit got an up-close look at the ins and outs of coaching and hockey. Current NHL coaches Claude Julien of the Bruins and Alain Vigneault of the Rangers also coached in the Quebec league.
"All my idols when I was younger were coaching in the Quebec junior league," Benoit said.
He said he was fortunate he got a chance to coach Gatineau and was happy.
"He really likes to win," quipped goalie Mark Grametbauer, who played for Groulx last season in Gatineau. "He pushes you to your limits, wants you to become the best player you possibly can. He wants you to do everything the way he sees it, because when you do, then everything kind of clicks.
"If one guy is not on the ship, then something doesn't work out."
Though Groulx is a "perfectionist," as Grametbauer said — one of his pet peeves is being late — he also has the personality to relate to young players, whether it's cracking a joke before a film session or joining them in a drill.
"At practice one time, we were playing 1-on-1 and (Groulx) completely toe-dragged one of our players (with a move), made him look bad," Grametbauer. "It just showed how comfortable he can be with the team."
Listen to Groulx talk about his coaching principles and it's hard not to see why there would be synergy between the Crunch and the Lightning.
Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper has always believed that "culture beats strategy," and Groulx's focus is on a team's identity and drive.
"I think X's and O's are overrated, especially in today's game," Groulx said. "We all know X's and O's. It's about how you relate to players. It's about how you get the point across. It's about how you manage your team. And so it's developing the culture, developing the identity. That's what we want to do in Syracuse."
Touted Lightning center prospect Brayden Point, who played for Groulx for Canada at the World Junior Championship and likely will next season for the Crunch, said the coach is strict but not boring in playing style. Groulx played a role in the development of NHL players including the Flyers' Claude Giroux and the Bruins' David Krejci, both of whom played for him in Gatineau.
"He likes to be creative," Point said. "He lets the top-end guys use their creativity. You have to be responsible in the d-zone, but in the offensive zone, he likes movement."
Groulx said he spoke with a few teams after the World Junior run and nothing materialized. BriseBois' phone call after last season "came out of the blue," he said.
"He's won everywhere he's gone," BriseBois said. "He's gotten the most out of his players. He coached teams to championships where probably on paper they weren't the best team, and he coached a team full of stars at World Juniors and led that team to a gold medal. He knows how to deal with this current generation of up-and-coming hockey players.
"He checked off all the boxes in terms of what we want in a head coach."
Contact Joe Smith at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.