Jillson on cusp of making it big

By Jake Dole
It’s time to make something clear: Jeff Jillson is a legitimate Calder candidate this year. After signing a contract with the San Jose Sharks in May, 2001, Jillson skipped the senior college year in Michigan to officially turn pro. However, joining a blueline that includes Marcus Ragnarsson, Mike Rathje, Brad Stuart, Bryan Marchment, Scott Hannan and Gary Suter will not be an easy assignment. Jeff will have to show a lot of determination at camp to earn serious playing time come regular season.

But if you ask Jeff Jillson, he’ll tell you that he will not despair. Throughout his career, he has played through numerous obstacles and difficulties. Although the NHL is not at all like college, Jillson will demonstrate as much effort and endurance as he does on any ice surface. At the age of 21, he still has weaknesses and will be expected to show more consistency than in the past, but Jeff’s decision to remain in college for a sophomore year turned out to be crucial. Despite a disappointing showing for the United States at the U-20 World Junior Championships, many would agree that Jillson took a major step ahead in his development.

Jillson was first noticed as a high schooler, playing for Mount Saint Charles in Woonsocket, Main; the same team that had won 21 consecutive state titles, which contributed to the pressure already on Jeff’s shoulders. Needless to say, Jillson did not disappoint; he dominated at the high school level, and was a three-time all-state honoree. In addition, he earned the Sports Illustrated/Old Spice Athlete of the Month honours in his senior year.

As early as high school, Jillson earned the reputation of being a “madman” on the ice. He displayed rare grit and intensity, serving as an inspiration to his teammates, and the team as a whole. He played through injuries and illnesses. Despite ailing from mononucleosis, Jillson eventually came back and lead the team to the state title.

After being drafted by the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers, Jillson seriously pondered leaving high school and turning pro right away. Similarly, another former member of Mount Saint Charles, Bryan Berard turned professional directly from high school, and eventually enjoyed a successful start to high NHL career, which included winning the Calder trophy.

However, Jeff made the move to Michigan of the CCHA; he instantaneously took over as the team’s major two-way force. By his second year, Jillson anchored the team’s power play, with precise passing skills, crisp passing ability and a powerful slap shot. As well, he killed off penalties, shut down opposition’s top lines, and logged 25 to 30 minutes a game. Jillson attended the Central Collegiate Hockey Association All-rookie team and was an All-CCHA selection over his next two years. As well, he was CCHA’s highest-scoring defenseman in his final two years in the league.

Returning to Michigan last year provided a lot of confidence to Jeff, who was not prepared for the pros at the time. Jillson matured personality-wise as well as skill-wise, as he was assigned a major leadership role within the team.

“I need another year of maturity and personal development,” Jillson said. “Learning those leadership skills, playing a major role on the team, and obviously, I want to go for a national championship…”.

A native of Rhode Island, Jeff Jillson was born in North Smithfield, a jog away from the Boston Garden. Thus, it is no secret that Jillson idolized the Bruins great, legendary defenseman Bobby Orr. Although Jillson was born long after Orr retired from the game, Jillson admitted that Orr’s presence as a two-way blueliner transformed the definition of defensive awareness. Jillson also stated that another defenseman that he idolizes is Detroit Red Wing Chris Chelios, a fellow American and a two-time Norris trophy winner. “He’s a tough two-way defenseman who plays a good defensive game and is a skilled offensive player,”said Jillson. “I try to (monitor) his game and learn from it.”

“I need to improve my game defensively and offensively, be that mixed type of player who plays at both ends of the ice, and try and stay humble and keep working hard. I like to play an offensive style, without giving up anything on the defensive side. I try to take care of my own end first, and if the opportunity is there; I like to get involved offensively.”

The alternate Captain to USA’s National Junior Team competing in World Junior Championships, Jillson is an excellent package of grit and finesse. His two-way ability allows him to be a physical stopper as well as a potential power play quarterback. His skating and a blistering shot underscore his offensive potential. An quality puckhandler, he is known for keeping the puck in the zone effectively on the powerplay, and keeping it out when shorthanded.
His quick reflexes allow him to pick up the movement of the puck very well, drawing turnovers by the opposition’s forwards. Also, Jillson is extremely effective along the boards, as he uses his frame and strength to gain control of the puck. Jeff is efficient in clearing the offensive zone as well as the crease.

There has been clear improvement in his game over the years. Although he displayed plenty of potential and flash in his first year of college, Jeff looked just like another big defenseman. However, his on-ice smarts only began to show last year. Although he was inconsistent at times, and made serious mistakes during the big games, Jillson showed the ability to thoroughly dominate the game. He improved upon his play on one-on-one situations and displayed better results while fighting for the puck.

In addition to being a great athlete, Jillson is also a dedicated student. Still buried in his studies during the regular season, Jeff juggled schooling and sports for the better part of his career. He is also planning to complete his degree in Sports Management sometime over the years.

Right now, the main focus for Jeff Jillson is making the San Jose Sharks. Confident in his abilites and convinced of being prepared for the NHL, Jeff is expecting to be a major cornerstone of the San Jose Sharks organization this year.

“There were a mixture of reasons, but I just felt that the timing was right,” said Jillson about his decision to try out for the Sharks. “I just felt more confident about this now than I did last year. Leaving last year would’ve been a mistake”, said Jeff about remaining another year to develop in the CCHA.

Although it might take a truly outstanding year for Jillson to win the Calder trophy, there is no doubt that he can make quite an impression. The Sharks’ blueline has pretty decent depth, but if Brad Stuart struggles, Gary Suter falters and Marcus Ragnarsson continues to miss games, Jeff could see considerable playing time, enough to make a significant impact. I do expect him to make the team; despite a few holes in the armour, Jillson has a huge frame, and countless other incentives. As of now, there does not appear to be another serious contender for the 7th blueline position.

Critics have mixed reviews on Jillson. Some like his potential; others question his consistency. I’ll be the optimist in this case. Jeff has a bright head on his shoulders, willingness to learn, and unlimited ability. Don’t be surprised if, by the end of the season, Jillson makes a substantial climb in the Sharks’ depth charts. Expect to see Jillson in various power play and shorthanded situations, which could result in up to 25 points this year.

The madman is loose…