Thursday, March 3, 2016

Riley Stillman Maturing as the Leader of a Rebuilding Generals Blueline

Image courtesy Oshawa
Just over a month ago, the Oshawa Generals named their new leadership group for the rest of the season. Second year forward, and Tampa Bay Lightning 3rd rounder, Anthony Cirelli was named Captain. The former walk-on is the perfect selection to help lead this team through a mini rebuild following last year's Memorial Cup Championship. However, many may have been surprised by one of the selections as assistant captain; rookie defender Riley Stillman. "You know what, yeah I was surprised [when they told me]," admitted Stillman. "But going into the room every day and seeing's a sense of entitlement...a sense of, you know what I'm here for a reason and I need to keep doing what I'm doing to help this team."

It's rare for a 17/18 year old to be given a letter in the OHL. In fact, outside of Stillman, only Flint's Will Bitten, Sudbury's Michael Pezzetta, Sault Ste. Marie's Tim Gettinger, Sarnia's Jakob Chychrun, and Mississauga's Michael McLeod wear letters as 1998 born players. The difference? All of those players are playing in their second years in the league. Stillman is still an OHL rookie. The fact that he has been trusted with such a critical role speaks volumes about Stillman's maturity level and commitment to improvement. You won't find many players in the league who work as hard as he does. 

Stillman spent the majority of last year with the Cobourg Cougars of the OJHL, where his strong performance earned him a spot on the OJHL's second team all prospect (an honour bestowed upon Toronto Maple Leafs second rounder, and Erie Otters defender, Travis Dermott two years ago). But he did earn a 9 game call up with the Generals, which was slightly eye opening to him. "The speed and the caliber of players was definitely better. In the OHL there are guys who do everything well, where as in minor hockey, you've got some guys that are just behind (in passing and skating)," says Stillman. 

Stillman will also be the first to admit that he wasn't in the best of shape last year, which motivated him to hit the gym hard this offseason. "Last year I was one of the lower fitness guys. So I spent a lot of time in the gym; on the track. And that's made a huge difference for me," says Stillman. "This year [at camp] I had the second highest vertical and I was down to 8% body fat. I really feel that I've been able to make the jump based on how much work I put in at the gym." 

With Oshawa rebuilding this year, the door opened up for a better conditioned Stillman to get into games consistently. However, it wasn't until after the Generals traded Stephen Desrocher to Kingston in early November that Stillman started to blossom. Pointless in his first 20 games of the season, Stillman has 19 points in his last 35, including 7 in his last 9 games played. 

It's his strong play of late that has scouts intrigued to the point where they're moving Stillman up their lists with confidence. Already 88th on NHL Central Scouting's midterm rankings, Stillman will no doubt move further up that list if he finishes the season on a positive note. That could include helping Oshawa hold off Hamilton to secure the 8th, and final playoff spot in the East. It could also, potentially, include a spot on Canada's Under 18 team; an accolade Stillman is definitely in consideration for.

Image courtesy of Jason Liebregts/Metroland
Jason Liebregts / Metroland
Jason Liebregts / Metroland
Outside of simply stat watching, it's easy to see why scouts are starting to take notice of Stillman. Watch any Oshawa game over the last month and #16 has become a real difference maker. He plays much larger than his 6'0 frame would suggest and can swing the momentum of any game with a big hit (as he has done recently against Peterborough and Ottawa). He's also playing with significant confidence offensively, leading the rush and looking to push the pace of play (his increase in point production is evidence of that). 

Of course, there's always the bloodlines, something NHL scouts definitely take into consideration. Stillman, for those unaware, is the son of former NHL'er Cory, who managed to score 278 goals in the NHL over a 15 year NHL career. "My favourite NHL player growing up was definitely my Dad," says Stillman. "And my favourite team was whatever one he was playing on. But it was a surreal experience though with him playing and moving to all those different cities and experiencing different things." 

So what's the best piece of advice his father has given him? "The best piece of advice he's ever given me is to keep my mouth shut and just work hard every day," says Stillman. Hard work has paid off thus far for Riley. It's earned him a critical role on an OHL blueline. It's made him one of the youngest assistant captains in the league. It's captured the attention of Hockey Canada. And it's a major reason why the Oshawa Generals are elated to have Stillman as a focal point of their rebuild. Come June, it will also be why an NHL team selects Stillman, earlier rather than later.

With Stillman, a solid group of 1998 and 1999 born players (like Domenic Commisso, Eric Henderson, Robbie Burt, and Jack Studnicka), and some high draft picks for the upcoming OHL Priority Selection (a Top 6 pick and a couple of early to mid second rounders), Oshawa appears poised to contend for a Memorial Cup again in 2018.

Thank you to the Riley Stillman and the Oshawa Generals for taking the time to answer my questions. Below is the full transcript of our conversation.

Otten: Wanted to start with some questions about last year. You had a small cup of coffee with the Generals just around the Holiday season. What was the biggest adjustment for you on the ice (compared to midget or Junior A)?

Stillman: The speed was definitely the biggest thing. And just the calibre of the players overall. There's no weak links like there is in minor hockey. In midget you get some guys that are sort of behind. They're not elite passers or skaters. But with the jump to the OHL, there are guys who do everything well.

Otten: Absolutely. That's something I've heard from many guys. You did have a great year in Junior A with Cobourg though, How did that year help your development?

Stillman: Playing in the OHL as an underager is hard to do. You need to go somewhere where you're going to get minutes, playing every game. I'm not sure it was the greatest of years, but it was definitely important to go there first so that I could be ready to make that jump. 

Otten: But was it tough missing out on the Memorial Cup run, knowing what was going on in Oshawa? 

Stillman: It was definitely pretty cool, pretty special what they had last year. The whole atmosphere in Oshawa was special. I was definitely jealous of those guys because the Memorial Cup is such a prestigious thing to win. It was awesome to still be a small part of it because I went to watch all the playoff games and hung out with the guys in the press box. But it definitely would have been cool to be on the team full time.

Otten: What were you able to learn in your short period of time with Oshawa (9 games), considering they were such a strong team, something you could take away from that experience?

Stillman: How hard I need to work every day. I mean, I do work hard, but what I learned last year was that I needed to be in that much better shape compared to where I was in order to play. I needed to work that much harder all the time. And I also learned that I need to make the first play I see and to not look for a better play. If it's there, make it and go from there. 

Otten: Was there a player (or two) in particular who really helped you out, took you under their wing?

Stillman: Josh Brown was very good to me. Desrocher too. But Brown definitely helped me out quite a bit.

Otten: I know I already sort of touched on this, but what did you do this summer to prepare for the OHL season this year? Especially knowing that the opportunity for you to go in and get some serious ice time would be there.

Stillman: The gym. I spent a lot of time in the gym. My trainers are in Phoenix. I use what's called an Arc weight and I spent a ton of time on the track. And that's made a huge difference for me. Last year I was one of the lower fitness guys and this year I was towards the top. I had the second highest vertical, my body fat was 8%. I really made a huge jump that way because I put the time in at the gym. 

Otten: That's awesome man. Really shows dedication. With Oshawa rebuilding a bit this year, you've managed to earn a fair amount of ice time (especially after the Desrocher trade) and your offensive production has been increasing. What's different about your game from the beginning of this year compared to now?

Stillman: At the beginning of the year, I felt like as one of the young guys you have to work your way in. Had to gain trust from Bob and from Eric Wellwood. At the beginning it was tough. I was nervous. I didn't want to play too high risk and I was honestly worried about getting scratched when Vande Sompel returned. But after the Desrocher trade, and after I returned from my concussion, I went in there with the mind sight of, the worst thing they can do is not play me. I'm just going to play as hard as I can. And that's what I do every night. And then I started to play a lot more and got the chance to be one of the top guys every night. 

Otten: Totally. And that leads into what I was going to ask you next. You wear an "A" for Oshawa, that obviously has to be something you take pride in. Were you surprised, given your experience level, when you were told that you'd earned that letter?

Stillman: You know what, yeah I was. At the beginning I didn't think anything of it, but I think the biggest thing that went into the decision that they noticed, is that in the room I keep my mouth shut and I work. That's it. That's what I'm there to do. And then I started to be a bit more vocal to help the team. 

Otten: Well and it's definitely something to take pride in because not many guys your age receive a letter in this league. 

Stillman: Absolutely. I was very proud to have it. Going into the room every day and seeing's a sense of entitlement...a sense of, you know what I'm here for a reason and I need to keep doing what I'm doing to help this team. 

Otten: Want to shift focus now, with your father playing so many years in the NHL, what's the best piece of advice he's given you thus far?

Stillman: Honestly, same thing I just said. The best piece of advice he's ever given me is to keep my mouth shut and just work hard every day. That's definitely the best thing he's ever told me.

Otten: When you were a kid, your Dad moved around a lot (St. Louis, Tampa, Carolina, Ottawa, Florida). Did you move with him in all those instances? 

Stillman: The only city that I didn't live in was Ottawa, so yeah we moved around a lot. It was tough at first, but you learn how to do it. It was a surreal experience though with him playing and moving to all those different cities and experiencing different things.

Otten: Did you ever get to go on the ice with your Dad?

Stillman: All the time. Sometimes they'd let me go on before, or on weekends. But every day after school, I would go on. 

Otten: Shifting focus again. With it being your draft year, is that something you think about a lot? 

Stillman: You know what, I try not to think about it. The idea of it is obviously there. And I know that's what I'm striving for. It's a big thing. But when I'm playing I try not to think about it. I'm just going to play and if it works out, it works out. If it doesn't, then I'll have another shot next year, or after. I just try not to think about it and it helps me play better, rather than worry. 

Otten: But obviously with your strong play of late you're definitely starting to climb on the draft rankings. Do you have a particular goal when it comes to the draft? Maybe going in the first 3 rounds? Or is it just being drafted at all?

Stillman: Obviously I want to get drafted as high as I can, but just to get drafted is the ultimate goal. Anything after that is a bonus, whether it's the third round or the seventh round. 

Otten: Exactly. Doesn't matter where you go, it's what you do afterwards to earn that contract.

Stillman: Yeah, and I went from being not ranked to being in the Top 90 (of NHL Central Scouting). Definitely progress.

Otten: So given your team's position in the standings, it seems like you may have a great shot at being named to the Canadian U18 team. Is that an opportunity you would relish?

Stillman: Yes, that would be awesome. If we were to not make the playoffs and I were to go overseas with the Under 18 team that would be great for me. I think it would help me a lot with the draft. I actually didn't really think about it a lot until the last week or so. But then I found out from our GM that Hockey Canada had been at some of our games watching me and a few other guys and that was really cool to hear. 

Otten: Yeah, I think there will definitely be a great opportunity for guys like yourself to make that team. A lot of the higher ranked guys are preparing for long runs in the OHL playoffs and that opens the door up for a guy like you to shine.

Stillman: Yeah for sure. A lot of those top guys like Logan Stanley are on teams that could make it deep and could go far in the playoffs. 

Otten: If I were to ask an NHL scout what your greatest strengths as a player are, what would they say?

Stillman: I would say my vision or my hockey sense. As well as my shot.

Otten: Conversely, if I asked them about the parts of your game that need the most improvement, what would they say?

Stillman: I think strength. I need to get stronger. I know that's a thing that everyone says; bigger, faster, stronger. But that would be the one thing to work on, just keep getting stronger.

Otten: Yeah, and you're right. That's a pretty common answer for young defenders. Before you move on to the pros, you've got to be able to handle the bigger forwards. 

Otten: Growing up, did you have a favourite NHL team/favourite player?

Stillman: Honestly, it was my Dad. And whatever team he played for was my favourite team. But if I had to pick one other than my Dad, it would have been Dany Heatley. I loved watching him play.

Otten: Yeah it's really too bad that his career fizzled out recently. He was definitely an exciting player to watch. I remember watching him at the WJC's a long time ago and just knowing he would be an NHL star. 

Stillman: Yeah, he was so good to me when my Dad played with him. He was always nice to talk with me and take me around the ice. So it was tough to see how his career fizzled out the last few years. He was just a really nice man.

Otten: Is there a guy today that you look at and say, that's a guy I pattern my game after, or a guy I'd like to develop into?

Stillman: Justin Faulk. That would be a style of play I'd love to develop my game into. Sort of a two way guy, but with an offensive touch. It took me 21 games to get my first point here, but in the last few games I've been able to get points. 

Otten: Last question. Who's the toughest forward in the OHL to stop one on one?

Stillman: I would say Josh Ho-Sang. Just because he's so unpredictable. Coming down you never know what he's going to do. He's so skilled. He's such a good passer. He's a good skater. He's got great hands. He can beat you wide. He can make a play. You just never know what he's going to do. 

Otten: Yeah the creativity with the puck and the things he's able to do sometimes is just unbelievable. 

Stillman: And if he wants to beat you one on one, he's going to. You have to be really on your game. Make sure you're watching him to make sure you stay in front of him. 

Otten: Absolutely. Anyway, thanks a lot Riley. Really appreciate you doing this. Good luck the rest of the season.

Stillman: Yeah no problem. Thanks for the call. And thank you.

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