(Sherbrooke) Draft stories are often marked by excitement. Often, too, by disappointment.

The disappointment of having lost ranks, turns. That of having been completely ignored for a year. Sometimes two. Disillusionment, of course, is proportional to expectations.

Justin Gill, he does not hide. In 2021 and 2022, there were no surprises for him. “I knew that wouldn’t happen. »

“Like any 17-year-old junior player, I wanted to be drafted into the NHL,” he recalls. But at that point in my career, I was far from there. I wasn’t even close to being considered. »

Sitting in the bleachers of the Palais des sports Léopold-Drolet, in Sherbrooke, it is not with his head bowed that Gill pronounces these words. On the one hand, his team, the Phoenix, will begin a strong series this Saturday against the Halifax Mooseheads, in the semi-finals of the QMJHL. Meanwhile, the most recent NHL Central Scouting ranking placed the center 116th among North American skaters. He is thus 10th among players on the Quebec circuit. Needless to say, at age 20, and in his third year of eligibility, Gill has never had a better chance of being selected by an NHL team.

“I’m not sure what he did over the summer, but it worked!” laughs teammate and linemate Joshua Roy. The latter quickly points out that it is a joke. Because everyone in Sherbrooke knows what has changed for Gill.

The principal concerned speaks of a “mixture” of several factors. He sweated blood and water last offseason to arrive at Phoenix training camp in Olympic form. He also mentions a greater physical maturity, attributable, according to him, to the experience acquired over the years. “At 19, you’re in the oldest, you learned from others before you, you played a lot of games, in the season and in the playoffs, he lists. This experience brings a certain mentality. »

He also talks about better “preparation”, especially on the mental level. Not only was he whipped up by what he calls the “failures” of the past, but he also enjoyed an unexpected dose of motivation.

The Vancouver Canucks invited him to their rookie tournament in Western Canada last September. His time there didn’t earn him an invitation to the big club’s training camp, but he came away with a fresh perspective on his own development.

Back in Sherbrooke, the magic worked. In his first three games of the season, he scored six goals.

“I was flabbergasted!” “, recalls head coach Stéphane Julien, adding in the process that this great start took place in the absence of the offensive star of the Phoenix, Joshua Roy, who was still at the camp of the Canadiens in Montreal.

Justin Gill is, in his eyes, the player “who has progressed the most in the team”. The leader recalls the transaction that brought him to Sherbrooke from Charlottetown in January 2021, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Obviously, his spirits weren’t at their peak – “he was a little looking for himself.” The first signs of improvement came last season. Then came that famous camp in Vancouver, the “candy” his center player needed.

The stars, therefore, have aligned. Gill had 93 points, including 44 goals, in 68 games, more than the combined production of his first three QMJHL campaigns. A disproportion to his personal bests of 20 goals and 46 points from 2021-2022.

NHL teams will find in him an athlete “who has everything to play for the pros”, insists Stéphane Julien. “I’ve seen players much less talented than him get drafted,” he said. His shooting is worthy of the major leagues, we hear about him.

A surly skater without being the strongest of his generation (6’1″, 190 lbs), Gill says of himself that he sees himself playing “in all situations”, but that he will still have to work on his speed and his agility “to reach the next level”.

Two months out from the draft, he is keeping a cool head about his future. The ranking of the Central recruitment, “it is sure [that he] looked at it”, he admits. “I try not to have too many expectations,” he adds, aware of the cold reality of his industry, but also of the other ways, outside the draft, to find work in the professionals.

“[Nevertheless], if that should happen, I’m going to be super happy,” he breathes, a shy smile on his lips.

We would be less.