Pillar eager to help Blazers win a championship

Photo Courtesy of Allen Douglas/Kamloops Blazers Kamloops Blazers forward Josh Pillar skates after the puck while being pursued by Prince George Cougars captain Jack Sander earlier this spring.

Former Mintos forward ranked by NHL Central Scouting for second straight season

During the last two regular seasons, the Kamloops Blazers have posted a record of 59-22-3-1.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic has prevented the squad from obtaining any other honours besides the B.C. Division pennant.

With the Western Hockey League planning for the return of post-season play this year, Blazers forward and Prince Albert Mintos alumni Josh Pillar is looking forward to helping the team try and capture their first league title since 1995, when they won the Memorial Cup on home ice.

“I’m really excited to see what we can do next season as I think we’re going to have a really good team,” Pillar said.

“There’s a lot of conference within our team and we have a great group of young kids that have brought a lot of positive energy on the ice. The future for the Blazers is really bright.”

The 19-year-old from Warman played a key role in the Blazers’ success this spring as he led the team in scoring with 29 points (11 goals and 18 assists) in 22 games.

“I felt like I played with a lot more confidence this year and I was able to step up and help the team out when guys weren’t playing like Logan Stankoven (when he was representing Canada at the World Under-18’s) and Connor Zary (who missed the final seven games of the season due to an injury),” Pillar said.

“I’m also really proud of how well all of us performed during the season. I ended up being on the same line as Cadean Bankier and he’s a really good player to be teamed up with. We had a lot of fun out there together.”

Pillar’s performance was a continuation of what he was able to do in his sophomore campaign, where he doubled his rookie scoring output with 44 points in 63 games.

“Having that extra bit of confidence helps, but I think another thing that helps is just having that extra bit of experience in the WHL,” Pillar said. “You have a better idea of what the systems are, what the game is like and everything that goes into playing in this league from your first two years.”

While the Blazers were based out of a hub in Kamloops with the Prince George Cougars and Vancouver Giants this spring, the team was able to travel for games in Kelowna, which is where the host Rockets and Victoria Royals had set up shop.

“The schedule was a little more compact than usual so you had to make sure that you took care of your body, but I thought it (the hub) was a really good experience,” Pillar said.

“I think our entire team was pretty confident that we had a strong group once again on paper, but we needed to deliver on the ice. We gelled together really quickly and our coaches put in a great system that allowed us to execute and play our game.”

The Blazers also had some extra motivation to succeed this spring as third-year forward and former Minto captain Kyrell Sopotyk suffered career-ending injuries in a snowboarding accident in January.

“We definitely missed having Kyrell around and I know would have made our team even better had he been with us,” said Pillar, who was teammates with Sopotyk on the 2017-18 Mintos side the reached the Saskatchewan Midget AAA Hockey League final.

“We’ve been thinking about him a lot and we’re all hoping that he’s doing well in his recovery.”

Since he returned home in May, Pillar has been busy both on and off the ice with his training regiment as he prepares for his fourth season in the WHL.

“I took a couple of weeks off once I got back from Kamloops, but then it was right back into the normal skating and training routine,” Pillar said.

“I’m constantly trying to improve my game in all aspects. There are certain things that I try to focus on more, such as my overall strength, but for the most part, my training routine is pretty similar to what it has been during the last couple of years.”

Pillar is also hoping that his strong season will earn him an opportunity with a NHL team during this weekend’s draft, as he’s ranked 166th among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting and is projected to be a sixth round selection by FC Hockey.

This marks the second year that Pillar has been eligible to be selected, as he was not chosen last October despite being ranked 120th among North American skaters.

“That was definitely a tough day but it pushed me really hard to try and get better for this past season,” Pillar said. “Looking back on it, I think that extra motivation and the longer off-season that we had to train ended up being really good for me.

“There’s not much more I can do now that will affect things when it comes to this year’s draft. Right now I’m just waiting for the weekend and seeing what happens.”

The Blazers are expected to extend their streak of having a player picked in the NHL Draft to 10 straight years on Friday as Stankoven is projected to be a first round selection.

Bankier is considered to be a possible mid-to-late round choice on Saturday, while 19-year-old blueliner Quinn Schmiemann is back in the draft pool after the Tampa Bay Lightning elected not to sign their sixth round pick from 2019.

Pillar is one of two former Mintos forwards that earned recognition from NHL Central Scouting, as Gabe Klassen of the Portland Winterhawks was ranked 212th among North American skaters.

Other Mintos alumni that suited up in the WHL this year and are eligible to be picked this weekend are goaltender Spencer Welke (Regina Pats), blueliners Chase Friedt-Mohr (Spokane Chiefs), Alex Moar (Swift Current Broncos) and Marek Schneider (Saskatoon Blades), and forwards Logan Barlage (Lethbridge Hurricanes), Chase Bertholet (Winnipeg Ice), Ashton Ferster (Medicine Hat Tigers), Kishaun Gervais (Portland Winterhawks), Turner McMillen (Kelowna Rockets), Cohner Saleski (Swift Current Broncos) and Cael Zimmerman (Calgary Hitmen).