In 2018, the Montreal Canadiens had a very clear NHL Draft strategy — load up on centres to help bolster a long-time position of weakness in the organization. With Jesperi Kotkaniemi at the top of the draft, the Canadiens used one of their third-round picks on Guelph Storm centre, Cam Hillis.
There was an unofficial competition of sorts in the following year between Hillis and fellow picks Allan McShane and Cole Fonstad, to see who would end up earning an entry-level contract. Hillis won out, signing his contract in the spring after an outstanding 83-point season with the Storm.
One solid year — an injury-shortened year — and one excellent season, highlights Hillis’ OHL career with Guelph where he was a high-end playmaker for the Storm. His vision and passing talents helped propel his most recent linemate to a 40-goal season, and bolstered their draft stock.
In his last OHL season, Hillis was nearly attached at the hip to the insanely talented sniper Pavel Gogolev, who converted plenty of Hillis’ passes into goals over the course of the year. With 59 assists on the year, Hillis ranked among the elite for OHL playmakers, trailing multiple first-round picks and soon-to-be first-round picks.
While his goal totals are not nearly the same as his assists, that’s never truly been Hillis’ game. He will always be a pass-first, setup man for goal-scoring wingers.
The range of votes for Hillis was fairly even, with most panelists having him in the late teens to early twenties. I had Hillis as number 27, the lowest vote on the board, which for me was due to the big talent that has joined the club this year and last. Hillis will be an interesting case to watch next year with an AHL season under his belt.
Top 25 Under 25 History
|2018: #27||2019: #30|
Hillis just missed making the Top 25 a month after being drafted, but slipped a few spots the next year after a difficult draft-plus-one season. This is his first year within the official Top 25 Under 25.
History of #19
For Hillis, his strength has always been, and likely always will be, in his playmaking ability down the center of the ice. Hillis sees the ice extremely well and uses that to his advantage, often playing steps ahead of the puck to create unique opportunities for himself and linemates. Hillis possesses a special talent for being patient in his game, not forcing himself into plays to try and make something happen like many other junior-level players. He knew where he had to be to keep opposing offences from setting up in the defensive zone, and made sure to provide the necessary support to his defenders as well. Having that kind of talent pays off at the professional level and also applies big time in his ability to produce assists every single night.
Much like his restraint in the defensive zone, Hillis showcases tremendous ability to let plays develop and pick his best option for a pass or shot. He developed outstanding chemistry with Gogolev in the past year, with the Russian sniper providing the perfect outlet for Hillis’ passing talents. Cam had no issue threading passes through defenders or across the slot for the talented goal-scorer, and it’s not hard to imagine him finding a similar chemistry in Laval this upcoming year with a talented winger like Jesse Ylönen.
And while his playmaking is his bread and butter, Hillis had no problem scoring goals of his own, and not just simple tap ins or empty nets, he works hard to get pucks in the net.
With some deft skate work, nifty hands, and top notch vision, Hillis established himself as a multi-faceted attacker in his final OHL season. There were some concerns about how he might rebound after a poor sophomore showing, but they were quickly erased as Hillis captained the Storm and thrusted himself into the upper-crust of OHL scorers. Now, after nearly a year away from the ice due to COVID-19, Hillis will join the Laval Rocket, where he’ll once again be looking to establish himself.
Finally, it must be noted that Hillis is not a lazy drifter of a player, he works hard every single shift on the ice to create chances. His work ethic is beyond reproach and will serve him well under Joël Bouchard. Combine that with his defensive acumen and you have a recipe for potential instant success in the pros.
For Hillis, his weaknesses are born of bad habits he picked up early in his development that he can get away with in the OHL but will burn him in the AHL and above. Most notably is that in small spaces. Hillis tends to remove himself from better positions, even if he isn’t under pressure, because he is not shoulder-checking for opponents. This lack of awareness leads him to make extra, wasted movements along the boards that allow opposing defenders to close in, and stonewall Hillis from advancing the play.
In a league like the AHL, where play can be ground to a slog in an instant, Hillis will need to do better at assessing his opponent’s defensive positions or he’s going to run the risk of killing a lot of plays before they can fully take shape. While his work ethic and drive is unmistakable, Hillis could use some work on his skating stride so that he can put that energy to better use and allow himself more ways to create space from opponents as well.
Perhaps the biggest overall knock may be that sometimes he is just not selfish enough with the puck despite showing a nose for scoring goals. Hillis almost always opts to pass rather than shoot, and if opposing teams recognize this they can take away his options, forcing him to choose Plan B or Plan C depending on the situation.
Hillis is a truly interesting piece to try and fit into the current Canadiens puzzle. He isn’t an immediate threat to their two young developing centres in Nick Suzuki or Kotkaniemi, he isn’t going to take Phillip Danault’s role anytime soon, and as it stands, he lacks the same experience that Jake Evans and Ryan Poehling have. That isn’t a surprise to anyone, given he’s going to be coming fresh out of the OHL and into the AHL where he’s going to go through an adjustment period.
Given the Canadiens depth down the middle, Hillis isn’t going to have an easy road to claiming a spot. However, he has the talent to grow into a special piece in the prospect pool, he plays a much more mature game that translates well to the professional level already. He’ll be hard-pressed to match his offensive output in Laval given he’s going to be without a truly elite goal-scorer like he had in the OHL, but he has plenty of talent to make his transition smoother.
While not in the upper echelon of prospects, Cam Hillis is still the kind of prospect talent you want in your system. He’s got plenty of high-end skill and the work ethic to put it to good use. He’s far from a sure thing, but he’s got all the right pieces to change that in a heartbeat.