Each week we take an in-depth look at young members of the organization while providing an overview of Habs prospects playing at the Junior (OHL, QMJHL, WHL) and collegiate levels (USHL, NCAA).
Four points in a dozen games. That’s not the start that was envisioned for Cam Hillis.
In his draft profile published in May, before he was selected by the Habs, I deemed the 2018-19 season to be the year the diminutive centreman would break out and become a player widely recognized in the OHL both for his defensive and offensive capabilities.
It might sound silly with the pace that Hillis is currently on, but there were a lot of elements that pointed to this possibility.
He is late birthday; he played his entire first OHL season as a 17-year-old, only turning 18 in June. That means that he was one of the younger players in his draft year, with more room to grow and potential to add to his slight frame. Hillis was a hard-working player who wasn’t afraid to battle much bigger opponents, but he was doing it at a pretty big weight disadvantage.
This past draft year was also his first in Junior. Instead of getting a taste of the calibre of play by spending a season in the league before NHL teams started circling around him, like many do, Hillis jump directly from his prep-school, St. Andrew’s College, to the OHL. There was then a lot of catching up for him at first as he got adjusted to the faster game. He only contributed six points in his first 13 games, but he upped his pace, following up with 53 points in the last 47 games, closer to the production of top prospects.
He scored 20 goals, but had very low shot numbers. He hit the net only 105 times in 2017-18, for 1.75 shot per game. Far from enough for a forward. On the flip side, that also meant a shooting percentage close to 20%, which was explained by his tendency to position himself around the net for one-timers off cross-ice passes or rebounds, especially on the power play.
Added to all of that, Hillis, who was already a good athlete, finishing first in VO2 max at the scouting combine, had decided to work with renowned skating coach Barb Underhill in the summer, committing to improving his straight-away speed and quickness, which were areas of weakness for him.
All in all, if you had to bet a on prospect to have a breakout this season, a stronger, faster, more experienced Hillis on an upward curve in his production, who also consciously puts up more pucks on net, was a good one.
But reality has been different. I can’t really speak for the weight that he has put on as the numbers available around are rarely exact, but, as covered in a previous article in this series, there doesn’t seem to be much change to the prospect’s forward stride.
He is still very pass oriented in the offensive zone, almost to a fault. There have been four games this season where he didn’t record a single shot. He has 16 total in his 12 games, or 1.33 per game; even less than what he had last season. This doesn’t give him many chances to write his name in the goal column.
If Hillis is the same player he was last season, he still has the ability to orchestrate plays, and he should be producing at a higher rate than what he is. What can explain that he is only putting up the odd point right now?
Shuffled linemates and bad luck could be a start. However, there seems to be a deeper flaw in the prospect’s offensive game that is worth exploring: Hillis’s play against pressure in the offensive zone.
The small centreman doesn’t give up the puck very easily when he has it on the attack. He consistently manages to find outlets to give his team a chance to keep possession for a little longer. This is possible due to his game sense and vision.
However, hockey is a game in which you often have to force mistakes from opponents. Finding open teammates is one thing, but creating passing lanes and moving the opposing coverage is much more effective in generating offensive opportunities. You can only get so far with one-touch passes and furthering the cycle.
Hillis can be elusive. He has great edges that, unfortunately, often remain underused. It is not rare to see him rush his play against back pressure, diminishing the quality of plays he can set up.
If he were to evade a defender with just one or two extra skating moves, or even just hold on to the puck a little longer against pressure, it would bring the attention of other opposing players around, possibly getting them out of position, and ultimately freeing his teammates for passes in dangerous areas. This is how playmakers operate. We have seen a few great examples of it from Ryan Poehling and Nick Suzuki recently.
Take a look at these offensive sequences from the Guelph Storm’s game against the Owen Sound Attack last week.
Cam Hillis wears #8 in red.
During an offensive-zone possession, there are times when Hillis could use his edges to spin off a defender, move the coverage around and try to find an option when he has the attention of the defence. But instead we see him defer to teammates or immediately use the boards, barely keeping the puck on his stick against defensive pressure.
The centreman tends to plant his feet when he receives the puck in an open area in the offensive zone. His teammates might be moving trying to get open for a pass, but if the passer is not moving, it facilitates the job of the defence trying to read the play and cut passing lanes.
Hillis is able to manipulate the defence off the rush or on the power play, but it only gives him so many scoring chances in a game. He is an energetic and hard-working player who could bring more of the same energy when he has the puck on his stick while his team is installed in the offensive zone.
It might be the key to getting back to the point-per-game pace he is far from right now, but showed last year that he can attain, or even surpass.
Samuel Houde, C, Chicoutimi Saguenéens
Samuel Houde continues to fill highlight reels with his play. On Saturday, he had arguably his best goal yet when he drew a defender in, got around him with his quick hands, and beat the goalie with a quick weight shift and a well-placed wrister in between strides.
Houde is up to 12 points in 13 games right now and has achieved a new level in his play, giving everyone regular glimpses into his offensive potential.
Follow David (@RinksideView) on Twitter for daily prospect updates.
CHL weekly performance
|Nick Suzuki||2017||C/RW||OHL||Owen Sound||3||4||4||8|
|Cole Fonstad||2018||LW||WHL||Prince Albert||2||0||0||0|
|Josh Brook||2017||RD||WHL||Moose Jaw||Suspended|
CHL season to date
|Nick Suzuki||2017||C/RW||OHL||Owen Sound||10||7||9||16|
|Cole Fonstad||2018||LW||WHL||Prince Albert||13||5||6||11|
|Josh Brook||2017||RD||WHL||Moose Jaw||7||4||7||11|
NCAA weekly performance
|Jack Gorniak||2018||LW||Hockey East||Wisconsin||2||0||0||0|
|Ryan Poehling||2017||C||NCHC||St. Cloud State||2||1||2||3|
|Jordan Harris||2018||LD||Hockey East||Northeastern||2||0||0||0|
NCAA season to date
|Jack Gorniak||2018||LW||Hockey East||Wisconsin||4||0||1||1|
|Ryan Poehling||2017||C||NCHC||St. Cloud State||4||1||4||5|
|Jordan Harris||2018||LD||Hockey East||Northeastern||4||1||2||3|
Goalie weekly performance
Goalie season to date