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Catching The Torch: Cam Hillis is working on his unpredictability

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The Guelph Storm are having trouble since returning in January, but Hillis remains a bright spot for the team.

Aaron Bell/OHL Images

Each week we take an in-depth look at young members of the organization while providing an overview of Montreal Canadiens prospects playing at the Junior (OHL, QMJHL, WHL, BCHL, USHL) and collegiate (NCAA) level.

The Guelph Storm have only won a few games since coming back from the Christmas break. Their direct competition loaded up at the deadline. The Storm did not; the team has had trouble staying afloat in most of their contests, even accumulating a 10-game losing streak in January.

But the productivity of Cam Hillis has remained a bright spot for them. His pace has slowed down to around a point-per-game, but that’s expected considering the team’s current situation. Hillis remains in the top 10 in the OHL for assist numbers, and a recent goal-scoring surge had him surpass his previous career OHL record of 20 markers.

On Friday, a Valentine’s Day showdown between the Storm and the Owen Sound Attack — two formations separated by a couple of points in the standing — Hillis put up the first goal of the game, which also ended up being the game-winning goal. He found the back of the net by slapping home a cross-ice pass in a two-on-one early in the game, and then continuously pressured the Attack’s attack to shut them down.

It was the fifth shutout for the Storm this season and the second against Owen Sound.

Cam Hillis wears #8 (red) with the Guelph Storm

Below is a montage of some of Hillis’s most interesting defensive sequences. They all end in a defensive break that sprung the Guelph Storm on the offence.

Hillis countered Owen Sound all night by descending in a slot-protective position and staying patient in support of his defencemen. Gliding a few feet from players battling on the low-walls of the zone, he chose the right moment to pounce on the puck and guide it up ice. When no immediate path to a zone exit presented itself, Hillis held on to possession after getting it back; he attracted two opposing players and then reversed the play to a teammate in open space, who could then spring the attack.

Hillis made no extraordinaire efforts to break plays. His effectiveness came from not over-committing defensively — a common sin of junior players. He didn’t jump ahead of breakouts; he remained almost leveled with his defence to give a low pass option and to act as a safety net in case of turnover. And when the puck became contested in the offensive zone, he remained high, avoiding odd-man rushes against.

Hillis ended the game by spending a minute and a half defending a six-on-five as Owen Sound launched a couple of last desperate attacks.

The Habs’ centreman isn’t the speediest OHL forward, but he also contributed to his team’s offence in that game by gaining the zone for them a few times. He used a give-and-go to create runways to pick up speed and push back the defence, attracting the defence on himself after crossing the offensive blueline to pass to teammates inside space.

In the last zone entry in the video, Hillis absorbed a big hit to give teammates a two-on-one chance.

While most of Hillis’s offence still comes from his passing ability and the way he’s able to slip between defenders to find pucks around the net, the Habs prospect also improved his release. This shot off a two-on-one is not something the Hillis of a couple of years ago could have pulled off.

First, because he would have passed every time in this situation. He would have slowed down to change the angle of his feed and hit his teammate for a back-door tap-in — a lower percentage play, but one that he would have been more comfortable making.

But instead, the more mature Hillis of this season used the threat of the pass to add a deceptive element to a shot. The way he brought the puck behind his skates and turned his upper body indicated to everyone who watched that he was about to pass.

From the position, without ever changing his grip — important to really sell the play — Hillis twisted his body to fire on net. The puck sat on the heel on of his stick at the start of the motion and by closing down his blade, he could slide it up his blade to add power and lift to his shot.

On Saturday, Hillis showed another new ability: shooting by a screening defenceman.

It’s the kind of little tricks that Hillis will have to continue to add to his game in order to become a more effective offensive player at the next levels. A dual-threat identity, equal part shooter and playmaker — a Nick Suzuki style of play — is important to not get shut down by pro-defenders.

Professionals learn tendencies. They might not know the exact odds of a player making a certain choice, but they instinctively feel the more likely play based on previous patterns. Varying choices and sending wrong signals to the defence becomes increasingly important as you rise in levels.

Cam Hillis is not yet an unpredictable player, but he is taking steps in that direction this year.

CHL Weekly performances

Player Draft Pos League Team GP G A P
Player Draft Pos League Team GP G A P
Rafaël Harvey-Pinard 2019 LW QMJHL Chicoutimi 2 0 1 1
Samuel Houde 2018 C QMJHL Chicoutimi 3 1 2 3
Cam Hillis 2018 C OHL Guelph 3 0 2 2
Allan McShane 2018 C OHL Oshawa 2 0 1 1
Jacob LeGuerrier 2019 LD OHL Sault Ste Marie 2 0 0 0
Cole Fonstad 2018 LW WHL Everett Silvertips 3 1 1 2
Gianni Fairbrother 2019 LD WHL Everett Silvertips Injured
Kieran Ruscheinski 2019 LD BCHL Salmon Arm Silverbacks 4 0 1 1

CHL Season to date

Player Draft Pos League Team GP G A P
Player Draft Pos League Team GP G A P
Rafaël Harvey-Pinard 2019 LW QMJHL Chicoutimi 55 31 40 71
Samuel Houde 2018 C QMJHL Chicoutimi 43 19 31 50
Cam Hillis 2018 C OHL Guelph 61 23 58 81
Allan McShane 2018 C OHL Oshawa 62 23 44 67
Jacob LeGuerrier 2019 LD OHL Sault Ste Marie 60 6 25 31
Cole Fonstad 2018 LW WHL Everett Silvertips 60 15 59 74
Gianni Fairbrother 2019 LD WHL Everett Silvertips 37 5 20 25
Kieran Ruscheinski 2019 LD BCHL Salmon Arm Silverbacks 36 0 6 6

NCAA/USHL Weekly performances

Player Draft Pos League Team GP G A P
Player Draft Pos League Team GP G A P
Jack Gorniak 2018 LW Big Ten Wisconsin 2 0 0 0
Cole Caufield 2019 RW Big Ten Wisconsin 2 0 0 0
Brett Stapley 2018 C NCHC Denver 2 0 3 3
Jayden Struble 2019 LD Hockey East Northeastern Injured
Jordan Harris 2018 LD Hockey East Northeastern 2 0 0 0
Rhett Pitlick 2019 LW USHL Muskegon 2 1 1 2

NCAA Season to date

Player Draft Pos League Team GP G A P
Player Draft Pos League Team GP G A P
Jack Gorniak 2018 LW Big Ten Wisconsin 28 2 5 7
Cole Caufield 2019 RW Big Ten Wisconsin 36 19 17 36
Brett Stapley 2018 C NCHC Denver 35 5 25 30
Jayden Struble 2019 LD Hockey East Northeastern 21 3 7 10
Jordan Harris 2018 LD Hockey East Northeastern 33 3 18 21
Rhett Pitlick 2019 LW USHL Muskegon 45 17 25 42