When Jeff Jillson decided to leave the University of Michigan after his junior year last season, he had a specific goal in mind—to make himself as ready for his first professional hockey season as possible. Jillson spent most of the summer of 2001 in San Jose working out with the Sharks’ Strength and Conditioning Coordinator Mac Read, trying to prepare himself for the faster, bigger, and stronger competition at the professional level, but it’s not the first time he’s had to adjust and turn himself into a different player.
It was only four years ago that many felt he would have been better suited to play in the Canadian Hockey League as opposed to college, but Jillson decided not only to make the decision that was best for his hockey career, but also what was best for his own personal development.
“I saw a few games in the junior leagues and then I saw a couple in the college leagues and figure I got the best of both worlds, (I got to) play a high level of hockey and at the same time continue my education,” said Jillson. “The thing is at Michigan is that you get so much exposure even though it’s a college team as far as hockey goes and you can get the best of both worlds to continue to work on your game as well as continue on with your education, so it works out pretty well.”
In another sign of Jillson’s constant strive for improvement, not just in hockey, but in life, Jillson recently registered for classes on the Internet at Michigan where he was a constant All-Academic selection. He said that the early plan is to do most of his coursework during the downtimes such as flying between NHL cities and on non-game days in San Jose.
When Jillson packed his bags for San Jose, he didn’t know what to expect. He was in a new city, one that he had only visited once before, shortly after being drafted in 1999, the 14th selection in the draft. His goal in coming to San Jose months before training camp was largely based on getting himself mentally ready as well as physically ready though.
“I stayed here pretty much the entire summer,” said Jillson. “I tried to put myself physically off the ice in the best shape I could.”
Once camp finally started, it was up to Jillson to take what he had learned in college, take what he developed over the summer, and apply it to his first NHL training camp. During the first week when it was only the rookies in camp, Jillson was able to show his dominance over the group, however, when the veterans stepped in is when Jillson really had to step up his game just to compete.
“What most surprised me was the fact just how fast it is,” he said. “Everyone tells you, but until you get out there and experience it and learn to adjust to the game, especially not having played a game since my last college game. Definitely the speed is something you just have to adjust to the same way as coming out of high school and adjusting to the college speed.”
With a defense already depleted due to the contract holdout of Mike Rathje, and injuries to Brad Stuart and Bryan Marchment which held them out of preseason games, Jillson had an opportunity to shine, where in normal circumstances, he would have had to wait longer. On the San Jose Sharks of 1996, Jillson would have a spot on the roster guaranteed, but five years later, the team is a much improved one, and Jillson had to earn his way onto the roster, despite missing pieces of the defense.
“No, I don’t think so,” Jillson responded about taking a different approach knowing there is a spot to be had. “My main objective is to play as well as I can and work as hard as I can, whatever the situation may be. If you do that, you can’t go wrong”
Jillson earned a spot on the roster, not because the Sharks were in desperate need of him, but because he has shown enough improvement since training camp opened till now, more than a week into the season, to warrant him getting minutes on the ice. With Brandon Smith playing in the AHL who has limited NHL experience, and Shawn Heins also on the blueline, the Sharks can have six, experienced, defensemen. The point is that the Sharks have chosen to have Jillson as a part of their defense, not being forced into it as has been the case in years past.
“There’s a lot of room for improvement with Jeff, but he’s going to improve because he already has,” head coach Darryl Sutter said. “You can play some guys for three weeks and they don’t improvement in any area. He’s improved in a lot of areas, not just one.”
However, if Jillson fails to improve, he will only become another along the list of defensive prospects the Sharks have had with the team who started strong, only to quickly fade. Names such as Michal Sykora and Vlastimil Kroupa started with a great amount of promise, and are now bouncing from the AHL to the NHL or out of hockey all together. A major problem that Sykora and Kroupa had is that they had no one to teach them how to be an NHL player.
The Sharks of today now have Gary Suter to teach the young defensive gems not only how to be better players, but how to deal with the other difficulties of an NHL player such as the travel, long times away from home and dealing with the slumps and streaks that he will inevitably face. While Suter may not be the point-per-game player he was in the late 80’s and early 90’s, he is no doubt a smarter player now, often being referred to by terms such as “a professor on the blueline” by Sutter.
It wasn’t a coincidence that for his first two seasons Brad Start, the team’s first round draft pick in 1998, was teamed with Suter. This pairing helped Stuart adjust to the NHL game, and allow him to have a partner next to him that would make things as easy as possible to succeed. With Stuart further maturing and no longer needing Suter directly next to him to succeed, it is time for Suter to divert his attention to his new pupil—Jillson, and Jillson knows that following the advice of Suter will help him avoid the fates of men like Sykora and Kroupa.
“I’ll just try to soak up as much information as I can and watch what he does and learn as much as I can, what a better guy to do it from,” Jillson said of learning from Suter. “I think you learn so much from watching a guy like that. I think just by watching him you can gain just as much, and as we get to know each other a bit more things will develop.”