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Cam Hillis’s first AHL goal was a season in the making

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The Canadiens prospect has been working hard to transform his game at the professional level.

Shanna Martin

It seems like everything in Cam Hillis’s professional career has required patience. From Trevor Timmins having to wait after Marc Bergevin traded the draft pick initially earmarked to pick Hillis, to him dealing with injuries and playing only two games in the Guelph Storm’s OHL playoff run in his second season, to the centre sitting out the first four games of the Laval Rocket season before making his pro debut.

On Saturday, in his 11th game, Hillis scored his first professional goal, tipping in the Josh Brook shot.

“It was a special feeling,” he said. “It’s been a crazy year this year and I’ve just trying to work hard every day and the coaches have been great working with me and it feels good to get this one today, and the win.”

It was the result of hard work that the Montreal Canadiens third-round pick in 2018 has put in to get ready for the next level. Although he has been a healthy scratch for 18 of the team’s 29 games, Rocket head coach Joël Bouchard said it was instrumental in his development to this point.

“He’s signed for three years,” Bouchard said. “Do we always need to go fast? Everyone wants everything fast. ‘He needs to play, he needs to play, he needs to play.’ Me, I’m on the complete opposite side of that. For me, he needs to play well. Playing for the sake of playing can destroy a player and he will lose confidence. He needs to play well. To play well, you need to be ready. I follow them every day and I know when they’re ready, I know when they’re ready to give it their all. For Cam, he’s a player who is in the midst of transforming and that’s what I like about him.”

Hillis admits himself that he had a lot of bad habits to work out to improve at the pro level and says that now that he’s able to play, he’s able to show what he can do.

“I think I have a good mindset,” Hillis said. “I know there were a lot of bad habits I had this year that I had to work on. It was a lot of hard work in the first part of the year. I am starting to play which is nice and I’m just going to keep rolling with it and keep working on getting 1% better each day.”

“A lot of junior players come into pro and have a lot of things to work out. I just had to work through them and it comes with time and experience. I think I’ve adjusted well and I’m going to keep adjusting.”

Bouchard says that Hillis’s injury history took a lot of development time away from him. He even said that even though Hillis is 20 years old and signed his entry-level contract, he was still eligible to go back to the Ontario Hockey League. Those factors, among others, meant he wasn’t ready for a regular role right away.

“He’s a young player who has been hurt a lot,” Bouchard said. “People will look at the statistics, he’s a third-round pick, but he’s missed a lot of hockey. His style of play in junior would not have worked in pro hockey. I’m very proud of him because he deserves to play with the efforts he’s making.”

After Hillis scored his first goal, Bouchard met him at the bench and gave him a hug. It was reminiscent of when he did that with Jake Evans last year after an extended slump before he scored his first goal of the season.

Bouchard had actually told Cam before Friday’s game that he thought he would get his first goal. He missed the prediction by one game.

“It’s an investment that the young player makes,” Bouchard said. “He didn’t steal his first goal. He worked hard for it.”

Although it is Hillis’s first professional year, he has worked with Bouchard in the past. He was one of the many current Rocket players who was a part of the 2019 Development camp and rookie tournament.

“In life, you reap what you sow and that’s what’s happening with Cam,” Bouchard said. “We’re invested with these guys. From the first day that I started coaching, I’m tough, I’m demanding, I set the bar high but I’m there for them. I’m there for them in the good times, and in the bad ones. The good moments are fun because it’s a partnership we have with them. When they face adversity and they get through it, as a coach you’re happy for them.”

The Rocket’s next scheduled game isn’t until May 4. They do have two other home games against the Toronto Marlies that will need to be scheduled. Bouchard said the team will likely get creative with what limited team activities they can have due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Last week, as an example, the team had scrimmages as they try to keep their level up between games.