The University of Maine's Cedric Lacroix (left) moves the puck around Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's Mike Prapavessis during their hockey game on Oct. 7, 2016, at Alfond Arena in Orono. Credit: Ashley L. Conti

Cedric Lacroix scored 21 goals in 145 career games during four years with the University of Maine hockey team.

He was a hard-nosed, checking-line center and valuable penalty-killer.

But Lacroix exhibited a scoring touch in his first pro season, leading the Wheeling (West Virginia) Nailers of the ECHL with 22 goals in 71 games to go with 20 assists.

He also led the team with 215 penalty minutes, the sixth most in the league.

Last week, Lacroix signed a two-way contract way with the reigning Calder Cup-champion Charlotte (North Carolina) Checkers of the American Hockey League.

He will earn a certain wage if he makes the Checkers’ roster and a lower salary if he is sent down to the Greenville (South Carolina) Swamp Rabbits of the ECHL.

The Checkers are the top minor league team of the National Hockey League’s Carolina Hurricanes.

Lacroix played one game in the AHL last year for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and scored two goals.

In his previous seven years of either junior hockey or at UMaine, Lacroix never scored more than eight goals in a season.

He credited Wheeling head coach Mike Bavis, a former Boston University standout and assistant coach, with playing a major role in his breakthrough offensive season.

“I was able to gain the trust of the coaching staff to put me in situations where I could produce offensively, whether it was on the power play or in situations late in the game when the goalie was pulled [in favor of an extra attacker],” the 24-year-old Lacroix said.

Lacroix said the team was permitted to dress only 10 forwards instead of 12 in the ECHL, and that gave him more ice time.

“We had a pretty young team and that gave me the opportunity to step in and be an integral part of the team,” he said. “Before the season, I wanted to go somewhere where there was a good opportunity, and I’d like to think I made the most of the opportunity.

“I can’t complain [about how things went] for my first pro season. To be able to contribute at that pace offensively, it was fun. Now I have to keep pushing and climbing the ranks.”

Bavis said Lacroix’s offensive game evolved as he gained confidence.

“In pro hockey, you play so many games that you can afford to take more chances [offensively],’ Bavis said. “It’s not life or death. You learn to take a deep breath and become more comfortable.”

Lacroix, a former UMaine assistant captain, amassed 155 penalty minutes in four seasons with the Black Bears but never had more than 45 penalty minutes in a season.

But Lacroix always has been a physical player and said fighting comes second nature to him from his days in junior hockey. He had 296 penalty minutes in 107 games over two seasons in the United States Hockey League.

“Fighting, for me, is like riding a bike,” Lacroix said. “Once you start playing, your instincts take over. At times, you’re forced to answer the bell.

“I got into a fight in Pittsburgh’s rookie-camp tournament and in my first ECHL game against Norfolk. After I got that out of the way, I felt pretty comfortable. I don’t worry about it. I focus on playing hockey. I don’t go out of my way looking for fights. But if they come my way, I will drop the gloves.”

Lacroix looks forward to trying to earn an AHL roster spot with Charlotte, which will have a new head coach in Ryan Warsofsky.

“I haven’t spoken to him yet, but I’ve heard he’s very eager and very intelligent. I’m excited to go to battle for him,” said Lacroix, a 6-foot-1, 185-pound Shefford, Quebec, native and son of former NHL player Daniel Lacroix.

Bavis said Lacroix will be missed.

“It’s a real tough loss. He’s a throwback, he really is,” Bavis said. “I enjoyed him as a person and he was a leader as a rookie. His toughness is going to be hard to replace.

“I couldn’t be happier for him. It wouldn’t surprise me if he eventually wound up in the NHL.”