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2021 Montreal Canadiens Top 25 Under 25: #24 Cam Hillis

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A first season in the AHL showed how far Hillis still has to go.

AHL: FEB 22 Manitoba Moose at Laval Rocket Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Cam Hillis only had one year of Junior experience under his belt when he entered the 2018 NHL Entry Draft. It was a strong first year in the OHL with the Guelph Storm, coming in just short of a point-per-game campaign. That production got him drafted in early in the third round by the Montreal Canadiens.

His plan of building upon that rookie year was knocked off course by a sequence of injuries that limited him to 33 games, and a mere 22 points. Going into his second and final season to impress the Canadiens before they had to make the decision whether to sign him or not, he put in a performance more representative of the talent he’d shown in his draft season, with 24 goals and 59 assists.

Named the captain of the Storm for what proved to be his final year in the OHL, Hillis formed a great partnership with sniper Pavel Gogolev. The pair finished atop the scoring list on the team, Hillis with his 83 points, and Gogolev with 96, including 45 goals to rank fourth in the league.

Elite Prospects

Gogolev didn’t follow Hillis to the AHL, nor did the offensive success. In the 18 games he got into he managed just one point, a tip-in goal, for a player who’d made his name as a playmaker in his Junior days.

It was a year of development mostly off the ice for the forward, learning new strategies in practice sessions with the AHL coaching staff rather than getting in-game experience. He’ll combine those lessons with his off-season training to try for better results in 2021-22.

Voting

Five panellists are confident that he will have a bounceback performance and show more of the ability he demonstrated in Guelph, placing him within the Top 25, including the community vote. Six voters are less sure that he’ll reach a higher level than others in the system, and placed him outside of that range.

Top 25 Under 25 History

2020: #18 2019: #30 2018: #27

Hillis was in a three-way tie for the biggest jump — 11 spots — from 2019 to his 2020 position, but now sees the second-largest fall in 2021, dropping from a fairly lofty place at 19.

History of #24

Year #24
Year #24
2020 Luke Tuch
2019 Joël Teasdale
2018 Rinat Valiev
2017 Josh Brook
2016 Ryan Johnston
2015 Darren Dietz
2014 Morgan Ellis
2013 Mac Bennett
2012 Steve Quailer
2011 Daniel Pribyl
2010 Brendan Gallagher

Strengths

You only need to look at his point totals to see that playmaking is his top talent. He hasn’t gone many stretches in his hockey career without averaging at least a point per game; last season must have truly felt strange without seeing a player convert one of his passes into a goal.

He has good hands to make accurate passes, and often made them at speed in his OHL days. He would be in constant motion when he had the puck, and that helped him find seams through the opposing defence to hit a player in a dangerous position.

The high-energy game sees him win puck battles to regain possession, and he’s a relentless defender in his own zone as well, challenging his man and trying force a turnover or get a block to clear the puck.

Weaknesses

At times he can move around too much on the ice, getting himself into a good position, wanting a better one, and turning right into the backchecking opponent he initially raced away from. There’s a lack of awareness of his surroundings when he’s in control of the puck and focused only on setting up a scoring play. That didn’t affect him much in the OHL with defenders who’d scramble around trying to catch him, but with more positionally sound defencemen and better systems in the AHL, he was more easily separated from the puck.

He also may be energetic, but he isn’t particularly big at 5’10 and 171 pounds. When he does work himself into a corner trying to win a battle, he can be overwhelmed physically; another difference he discovered in the minors from his time in the OHL.

Having to unlearn some of the tactics that earned him his greatest success as a teenager is surely a tough task for a young prospect, but that’s something Hillis’s off-ice training and coaching started to do last season. He began to find his way with the Rocket as the season went on, with more structured play, and that’s a good sign for his continued development considering how poor his first professional season looked from a numbers standpoint.

Projection

For the 2021-22 season, Montreal’s prospects don’t have to play their professional minutes in the AHL. There’s an ECHL affiliate close by in Trois-Rivières, and some of these long-term projects can develop in that third tier. Hillis probably would have preferred that route a season ago if it had meant more time in game action, and he could begin the season with the Lions to ramp up his game to the AHL level.

The longer the development goes for Hillis, however, the more players are coming in looking for the roles he wants to take. Even last year, in his first season of pro hockey at 20 years old, he was usurped by Jan Mysak, a player exactly two years younger (they share a June 24 birthday), who played 22 games compaed to Hillis’s 18, and even had one more goal. A new rule for the AHL will allow Mysak to play in the AHL once again if the organization wishes rather than return to his OHL club. Montreal also added two more quality centremen in the second round of this summer’s draft. All three of those players mentioned will show up later in this countdown, regarded as better bets to become NHL contributors.

The organization knew he was a long-term project when he was drafted, and that needed development time was only extended with a stop-and-start second year in Guelph. Last year was the first year of his ELC, so he has time to find his form. One thing he won’t have during that development is a player with the finishing ability of Gogolev in the Habs’ system, so he’ll have to do more of the offensive work himself to get back on the map.