After stellar junior career, Nathan Légaré finding footing with Rocket

Acquired last summer in a trade with Pittsburgh, rugged winger is adapting to the pro game in his third season at the AHL level.

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Nathan Légaré has discovered that success in junior hockey doesn’t necessarily translate into prosperity at the pro level.

That helps explain why, at age 23, he’s already with his second organization, having been traded from Pittsburgh to the Canadiens last August.

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“I had a really good summer and was looking forward to my third year (in the Pittsburgh organization),” Légaré told the Montreal Gazette this week. “My mindset was right. The (trade) just happened. It’s not like they traded me for future considerations. I was happy to be in Montreal. I know they wanted me.

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“A hockey career is like a roller-coaster sometimes.”

Légaré, a right-winger with the AHL’s Laval Rocket, was part of a three-team trade last summer. The Canadiens acquired him, defenceman Jeff Petry, goalie Casey DeSmith and Pittsburgh’s second-round 2025 draft choice, for Mike Hoffman and Rem Pitlick. The remaining part of the equation saw San Jose trade defenceman Erik Karlsson to the Penguins — a deal that included Hoffman going to the Sharks. Barely more than a week later, Petry was traded to Detroit.

Pittsburgh selected the 6-foot, 205-pound Légaré in the third round (74th overall) in 2019, after the Montreal native scored 45 goals and 87 points in 68 games that season playing junior for Baie-Comeau — a team he captained his final two seasons. Légaré’s selection by former general manager Jim Rutherford was viewed at the time as a coup, the organization trading up to secure the player, based on his offensive production.

But Légaré never played a game for Pittsburgh, assigned to its AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, where he endured his share of struggles. He was a frequent healthy scratch his rookie season and produced only seven goals and 16 points in 57 games. While he improved slightly last season while playing more games, he scored only once in the team’s first 17 games and was a minus-17. But Légaré was also an agitator, taking a team-leading 76 penalty minutes.

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He said his “heart stopped beating” upon learning of the trade to the team he idolized as a youngster. He had conveniently already purchased a Laval home not far from Place Bell.

“I was happy, especially coming home,” he said. “Playing in front of friends and family is always special, especially for francophones. To represent the Montreal Canadiens, it’s huge. Just to be part of an NHL team is special. Growing up … and looking at the Montreal Canadiens, it was a big dream. Obviously the dream is to play for the Canadiens, but it starts in Laval. If I contribute to the team and we win games, it’s going to be easier for me to go up.”

Légaré has six goals and nine points in 30 games with the Rocket, but he missed all of January with a lower-body injury and has played only three games since returning. He scored twice in Laval’s 7-1 win at Toronto last Saturday. He likes to play physical and is a strong skater who must use his size to succeed. Légaré also kills penalties.

“He’s a hard-working type of player that can grind and play some good minutes,” Rocket head coach Jean-François Houle said. “We’re not looking at him to get 50 goals, but to help once in a while in that situation; be physical and hard to play against. He’s got to understand what his role is, and it’s not to score. It’s to grind and take some good minutes, play on the PK and block shots. All those little things. He can’t be on the ice when we get scored against.

“You have to change your style sometimes. You have to understand, if you want to play pro at a high level, you might need to change chairs,” Houle added.

The Rocket (20-19-6) is sixth in the North Division, two points out of a playoff position. Laval is preparing for three weekend road games, beginning at Hartford (Friday), followed by stops in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Bridgeport.

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