When the Kamloops Blazers landed forward Garrett Pilon in the seventh round at the 2013 WHL Bantam Draft, it might have been easy for some to have little faith in the notion that the late-round selection could become a regular in the lineup, let alone an impact player. After all, Pilon suggests he checked in at about 5’2” during his bantam draft year.
However, as things have turned out during the current WHL campaign, Pilon has made it appear as though the Blazers team of scouts pulled a rabbit out of their collective hat when they made the 133rd selection that day back in 2013.
The son of former NHL defenseman Rich Pilon began his WHL career this season after spending an extra year in midget hockey. According to Blazers’ assistant coach Terry Bangen, that particular decision may have been best for all concerned.
“Garrett came in as a 17-year-old, which I thought was a good decision on his part and on our part in terms of playing his 16 year old year in midget where he had a great year,” said Blazers assistant coach Terry Bangen. “He came in with confidence and has had a big year. He’s had a very good year, a big surprise.”
Pilon played among a highly talented group of forwards with the Saskatoon Contacts of the Saskatchewan AAA Midget Hockey League, where he led the league in scoring that final season. His good friend and then roommate, Kole Lind, has been a regular in the Kelowna Rockets lineup this season, along with fellow Contacts alum Jordan Borstmayer. For much of the past decade, the Contacts organization has helped to develop and graduate a multitude of players to both the WHL and NHL.
Growing up as the son of an NHL player has some advantages for certain. In Pilon’s case, his father was able to assist along the way and has even been behind the bench at times during his son’s development. Rich Pilon was a burly, stay-at-home defenseman who toiled with the WHL’s Prince Albert Raiders for three seasons, playing alongside the likes of Dave Manson, Mike Modano, Darren Kimble and Todd Nelson. He appeared in almost 650 NHL games, the bulk of which came as a member of the New York Islanders.
The work ethic required to play regularly in the NHL has not been lost on young Garrett. And Bangen sees the benefits as well, and how those lessons have led to Garrett being such a dedicated player.
“I think his father has been a huge influence in a very positive way,” Bangen said. “We had a chance to meet him at camp and a couple of times during the season. Rich seems like a real down to earth guy who understands the game and doesn’t put a lot of pressure on his son. He just let’s him find his way.”
And find his way indeed this season! During his first full WHL season with the Blazers, Pilon scored 15 goals and added 32 assists in 71 games. He actually exploded out of the gate, collecting five points in his first two games, both against the division rival Kelowna Rockets. If those early outbursts made things seem a little easy at the WHL level, it wasn’t long before the rookie forward figured out that the 72-game grind would take some getting used to.
According to Bangen, both the player and coaching staff agreed to sit the youngster down for a game after a tough stretch of unproductive play. While it was only one game, Bangen raved about the benefit to Pilon in watching a game from the stands.
“He did hit the wall here a while ago, physically, mentally, emotionally,” Bangen said. “We could tell. His play had deteriorated a little bit.
“We suggested strongly that we felt a good idea would be to sit him out for a game, just to catch his breath and observe, to see some things. He responded very well. His analysis of the game was pretty amazing. He stepped right back in and has picked it right up. He’s been a very good performer ever since.”
As the regular season wound down, the 5’11”, 170-pounder became an integral part of the Blazers offensive push. The coaching staff has shown enough confidence in Pilon to play him in every situation, occasionally as a point man on the power play. Pilon responded down the stretch with productivity as the Blazers closed out the schedule with nine straight wins. Kamloops is facing the Rockets in the first round of the WHL playoffs in a series tied 1-1.
“He showed it from the first day of camp,” Bangen said when asked about Pilon’s confidence and assertiveness. “Throughout the season we’ve used him at centre and on the wing. We’ve used him right through the four lines, he’s been on the power play and he’s killed penalties. He’s a real versatile player.
“That’s pretty rare for a young player to do that. He seems to relish each role. It doesn’t seem to faze him, what position he plays or who he plays with.”
Sure enough, with the Blazers holding a 1-0 lead late in the second period against the Prince George Cougars in their penultimate game of the season, a game with important playoff ramifications, Pilon was positioned at the point on the power play. His rink-wide, cross-ice feed led to a second-period goal by Matt Revel with the man advantage to give Kamloops a two-goal cushion.
And in the third frame, Pilon made a skilled pass in the neutral zone to spring Collin Shirley for the insurance tally. The Blazers would go on to win the game at home by a 4-1 count, clinching third place in the B.C. Division and a first round playoff matchup with the Rockets. Kamloops won their last nine games to bump the Prince George Cougars into a wild card spot.
When NHL Central Scouting released its annual midterm ranking for the 2016 NHL Draft, Pilon was 187th among North American skaters. One certainly has to believe his stock has risen during the second half of the WHL season.
Hockey’s Future spoke with Pilon prior to the Blazers final home game of the regular season. He will celebrate his 18th birthday on April 13th.
Follow Glen Erickson on Twitter via @glenerickson51