Josh Pillar sounded like a young man despondent last October, his voice cracking while answering questions about being passed over in the 2020 NHL Draft.
“It is tough going back to that time,” recalled Pillar, the Kamloops Blazers’ forward from Warman, Sask. “I was hoping and expecting a different outcome. But as tough as it was at the time, it was actually kind of a blessing just because of how hard it pushed me to work in the summer.”
Pillar, chipper after scoring twice in a 2-1 victory over the Vancouver Giants on Tuesday (April 27) at Sandman Centre, was in an introspective mood on Wednesday, willing to dissect the off-ice growth he credits for much of his improvement this season.
“Over this past summer, I just matured a lot and learned a lot of normal people things I didn’t always have in my repertoire,” said Pillar, who is in his 18-year-old season and second in team scoring with 16 points, including seven goals, in 14 games.
“Even one thing I’ve noticed, physically, is I can actually grow facial hair. It’s such a minor thing, but for myself, it just feels like I’m getting older, like I’m not such a kid any more.”
Whiskers are not the only thing that blossomed during the off-season in Saskatoon.
On-ice tools are sharper, muscle mass is meatier and major maturity strides are evident.
“Probably the biggest improvement, for me, is his energy in the dressing room,” Blazers’ head coach Shaun Clouston said. “There’s some more confidence in his demeanour. He’s part of our leadership group and he’s a guy that speaks up a lot more in group discussions than he did last year. There’s been a change in him on the ice and it probably stems from his change off the ice. It’s really great to see.”
In some ways, it’s not that complicated — a lot can happen between the ages of 17 and 18. A teenager is a year older.
But it is interesting to hear Pillar, a right shot who stands six feet tall and weighs 176 pounds, speak about the coming of age.
“I’ve always been a social kid, but when you come onto a team with a bunch of older guys, it’s kind of weird,” he said. “It’s just nice having those people skills I developed over the summer.”
Pillar seems a deep thinker.
“Myself, who I am — and it isn’t always a good thing, but it’s just me — is I only kind of really think about hockey. How am I going to make myself feel good for the game tomorrow? What am I eating? Am I drinking well?” Pillar said. “The downside of that is it’s kind of stressful a lot of the time, maybe tough to sleep or things like that.”
Overthinking hurt him last season, he admits, most noticeably as it pertained to the NHL Draft.
“I was so young and didn’t really know a lot,” Pillar said. “I hadn’t really learned how to handle stress. The thing that’s going to help me is just going out and doing what I do — because I love playing hockey and being around the guys.
“It takes my mind off the stressful things and let’s me do my job.”
Increased point production is always nice, but his value might be better indicated by trust shown in him this season.
Pillar is making the most of first-line minutes and plays in all situations, including as the only forward during a 6-on-3 penalty-kill situation on Tuesday, with Vancouver pressing for the late equalizer.
“Playing these games, back-to-back nights and five games a week, it is tough on the body and tough on the mind, but just to know your coaches and teammates are there to support you and they believe in you 100 per cent, it keeps me happy and puts a smile on my face.”
Pillar is eligible for the 2021 NHL Draft and will continue to make his case for selection on Wednesday, when Kamloops (12-2) squares off against Prince George (5-7-1-1), a 7 p.m. start at Sandman Centre.
“It’s a crazy hard league,” Clouston said. “So many players and parents, they don’t recognize that. You hope that when you draft players — and their parents and agents and family hope — they’re going to be stars, but that’s just not the case. There’s too many players. It’s too competitive. The process takes time.”
Time and a few hairs on the chin.
Who knows what kind of damage Pillar might do if the full beard grows in.