by Bob Crawford | AHL On The Beat
For Hartford Wolf Pack defenseman John Gilmour, last year’s chance to represent the Wolf Pack in the AHL All-Star Classic in Utica was a real highlight, punctuated by his winning the Fastest Skater event in the All-Star Skills Competition.
So when the third-year pro out of Providence College was tabbed again to participate in this season’s All-Star Classic, Gilmour was thrilled to add an extra excursion to Springfield to his travel calendar.
“It’s obviously a big honor, and a privilege, to be selected to something like that,” Gilmour said recently. “I worked really hard in the summer, and it’ll be nice to go out there. It was a lot of fun last year, and I’m sure it’ll be a lot of fun this year.”
At the 2018 event in Utica, Gilmour found that what he most enjoyed about the All-Star experience was the opportunity to get to know a large collection of his fellow AHL skaters whose paths he had never before crossed.
“You’re around guys that you’ve never seen before, and never met maybe, so you meet a lot of new guys, hockey players like yourself, and everybody’s a nice guy,” he said. “It’s a good environment to be around, it’s a lot of fun. There’s a lot of smiles, a lot of jokes, and obviously the competition, it’s still for fun. Everybody’s just having a good time on the ice.”
That fun aspect is a key, according to Gilmour, for the players who participate in the All-Star classic, given that the festivities come just as the season is reaching its real “dog days.”
“The season is such a grind, and to have the All-Star break, it’s huge,” he said. “Everybody gets to re-set. And even though we’re going there, it’s still a bit of a re-set because everybody’s loose, everybody’s cracking jokes. It’s a fun two days, and then we’ll have another two days off after that before I get back to the grind.”
An added bonus is that Gilmour should have the opportunity to defend his Fastest Skater crown, attempting to become the first player since Ralph Intranuovo, in 1996 and 1997, to win the event twice. For Gilmour, it was certainly satisfying to be able to say that, for one night at least, he had the best wheels in the AHL.
“It’s cool, it’s something I could be happy about, and I know my parents were pretty proud about it,” he said. “My mom has my trophy hanging up somewhere, so hopefully I can get her another one.”
The All-Star honor is another positive in what has been an excellent season for Gilmour, who has always had success, throughout his career, producing offense but seems to have taken it to a new level in 2018-19. By the end of the first week of January, the Montreal native had already reached double digits in goals, nearly doubling his previous pro career high, and was close to matching last year’s personal pro best of 26 points. When asked what he attributes the even higher-end offensive numbers to, he pointed away from himself.
“I just think we have as good a team as I’ve ever been on in the pros so far,” Gilmour said. “You look how far the Wolf Pack has grown since my first year in the league two years ago, every game we have a real good chance of winning. And when you put together good pieces like that on a team, then everybody’s going to have more success. So I think that’s what you’re seeing, is a lot of guys having some success right now, and hopefully we can just keep that going.”
Gilmour has consistently excelled at moving and distributing the puck, and he is finishing more plays this season, including three game-winning goals among the first ten pucks he put into the net. That does not surprise his head coach, Keith McCambridge.
“John always had a heavy shot, able to get it off his stick quick, and it’s got some power behind it,” McCambridge said. “But he’s done a real good job this season on our power play, quarterbacking the back end and getting those shots through to the net when there isn’t another option to use. His ability to create that offense, and to use the power behind that shot to get it to the front of the net, and be rewarded for it with goals, is something that has continued to grow and has been a real positive point for his game.”
Gilmour doesn’t pinpoint any particular thing he has done differently this year to light the lamp more often.
“A lot of reps, I guess,” is his answer to what the key is to more effectiveness with his shot. “Everybody puts in the work in the offseason, we’re doing strength training and whatnot, so I don’t think you’re going to see a guy in this league with a bad shot. It’s just about trying to find the net, and knowing when to shoot it and when to pass it.”
No matter how many points come off of a defenseman’s stick, though, if he cannot defend well, he will not be able to stake a claim to a full-time NHL spot. That is a focus for Gilmour as he continues to grow his game, and he showed last season that he could be a reliable enough defender to log 28 NHL games of action for the parent New York Rangers.
“That’s always been the give-and-take with offensive defensemen,” McCambridge commented. “There’s a gift they have to make reads and join the rush, and use their creativity from the offensive blue line down. That’s been good for John over the years, but the part that we wanted to work on, to make sure it makes him a well-rounded defenseman, is how well he defends. And his commitment to that area, to get better, has been excellent, and we feel, watching him play and watching him the way he practices, that emphasis has really been magnified. He’s really shown some signs of having that balance between his offensive gifts and still being able to keep the puck out of the back of his net.
“Defensemen, as we all know, take a little longer with regards to development. So the experience gained from playing in Hartford obviously has benefitted him well. And then the opportunity to play in the National Hockey League last season has given him that much more confidence to have the ability to believe in himself. And his on-ice play in the American Hockey League this year has continued get traction, with his growth.”
As a result of that growth, Gilmour has taken on somewhat of a leadership role on this year’s Wolf Pack blue line. Being in his third year of pro, he ranks as one of the more experienced of Hartford’s backliners.
“You’re a young guy until you’re old guy-type of thing,” was how Gilmour characterized that. “I remember being a rookie, but now I’m definitely one of the older guys, and it’s nice to see the young guys come up in this league. They’re learning every day, and they’re getting a lot better, and they’re helping us win games.”
Of all of Gilmour’s many attributes, none stand out more than his smooth skating stride and electric foot speed. Those have been calling cards for him throughout his entire hockey career, but he almost seems to be using them to greater effect this season than last.
“I definitely work on my speed in the offseason, work on my strength,” Gilmour said. “It’s definitely an, if you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse-type of deal in the offseason. So I’m putting in the work, and you just hope that it pays off during the season. We’re about halfway through, so you just want to keep that going.”
“Beautiful skater, lots of explosive speed,” McCambridge said of Gilmour, “and it helps him, obviously, when you’re in those situations, to have those quick three strides and get himself a different look on what his outlets are. And if that’s not in place, then he’s quick enough to get up the ice and take it himself.”
Experience helps in that aspect, too, as Gilmour learns more about how best to harness and exploit his greatest asset.
“You’re a lot more comfortable, you know what works for you and what doesn’t,” he said. “I’m still learning, because I’m not, you know, a 10-year guy. But I’ve definitely learned a lot over the last few years, and learned what works for me and how to stand out, how to play my game and how to try to help the team win. And hopefully I can do more of that.”
It has now been nearly a year since Gilmour got his first-ever call to the Big Show, and the seasoning he gained during those two months on the Ranger roster helped him immeasurably.
“It was a huge experience for me, a lifelong dream come true,” Gilmour said. “You’re playing against the best players in the world, Crosby, Ovechkin, so you’re going to gain some experience from that, and bringing that down here (to the Wolf Pack) helped me hone my craft. I try to get better every day so I can get back up there.”
McCambridge agrees that the impact of Gilmour’s NHL stint on his game was noticeable.
“He has more poise with the puck,” the Wolf Pack bench boss elaborated. “He’s always had the ability to skate pucks out of trouble, add that second layer to the attack, but now when he has it, under pressure in the defensive zone, he’s playing with more poise.”
The fact that the Ranger stint for Gilmour was not just a cameo appearance, but a chance to become immersed in the NHL life and style of play, was also a huge boost.
“It’s certainly a confidence thing,” he said. “It wasn’t just a day or two, it was a couple months. So you get to take those experiences and learn from them, and learn what works and maybe what didn’t work, and bring them down here and try and correct your game as much as you can, and hopefully get back up.”
It was shortly after his All-Star Classic whirlwind that Gilmour received his NHL summons last year. That may, or may not, have been a coincidence, but he chuckles when asked if he is hoping that history repeats itself.
“Just got to stick to the process, really,” is what he insisted his mindset is. “I trust it, it worked for me last year, so just got to stick to it, come every day ready to work and work as hard as I can, get better every day and just hope for the best.”