Blake Hillman grew accustom to the big stage.
In his first two seasons at the University of Denver, the Pioneers made the Frozen Four when he was a freshman then won the NCAA championship the next year at the United Center in Chicago. Last March, DU’s repeat bid fell short in a 5-1 loss to Ohio State in the Midwest Region final.
The left-handed defenseman signed two days later with the Blackhawks, who drafted him in the sixth round in 2016. Three days after signing, he made his NHL debut in Denver at the Pepsi Center. He scored his first NHL goal in his next game against the Blues then played two more games before his season ended.
He hasn’t played a regular-season NHL game since.
Rockford IceHogs interim head coach Derek King has used him throughout the lineup, and Hillman knows he needs to be more consistent to earn more minutes.
“It starts with practice every day. I need to take advantage of it to work on things that are going to help me not only at (AHL) level, but the next level,” Hillman said Friday. “I’ve done a pretty good job at that this year. Also, trying to be as consistent as possible as a first-year pro.”
The knock on Hillman’s game is his foot speed and he’s taking strides to improve it.
“When I kinda not necessarily play bad, but get out of my groove is when I’m not moving my feet and standing still to make plays,” Hillman said. “When I’m moving my feet and making plays, you can notice there’s a big difference.
“(Rockford assistant) Anders (Sorensen) has been helping me with that and telling me, ‘you’re a much better player when you’re moving your feet.’ I’ve been doing that in practice when I have the chance and when I get in games. All it is is the first three strides to get your feet moving then look to make a play.”
Hillman isn’t like most of the defensemen the Blackhawks have drafted recently as he’s more of a defensive-minded blue liner with some size (6-foot-1, 193 pounds). He’s only scored one goal and three assists in 50 AHL games. Despite the organization’s shift to more offensive and puck-rushing defensemen, he still believes there’s a spot for him.
“You can’t have two offensive defensemen otherwise you’re going to be giving up a lot of odd-man rushes. I feel that’s where players like me and (Dennis) Gilbert are the more shutdown defensemen (and) I think that helps us with our chances (to make the NHL),” Hillman said.
“All these skilled really good forward-skating defensemen like (Henri) Jokiharju, (Nicolas) Beaudin are coming in here and currently with (Chad) Krys, (Lucas) Carlsson and (Joni) Tuulola, they’re all really good forward-skating defensemen and they make plays and make stuff happen. It’s good to have that safety net (like me) essentially to help when things go bad. There’s always someone back there to make sure they’re taken care of.”
Hillman knows he can learn from his offensive-minded defensemen teammates to improve his game, but he thinks he also can be a teacher for them as well.
“There’s always things I’ve noticed in practice that Jokiharju does or in games... stuff that I would never think about trying,” Hillman said. “I ask him in practice like, ‘what are you thinking when this, this, this, this (happened).’ He’ll tell me, and he’ll ask questions to me, too. It’s a two-way street.
“It’s great because coming from Europe or wherever they’re from they may have learned something different that might really help your game so you start implementing that in your game and you start to get better and vice-versa.”
Another defensemen coming through the system is Hillman’s former DU linemate Ian Mitchell, who was drafted in the second round in 2017. Hillman and Mitchell developed a friendship on and off the ice at DU.
“I talk to him a lot, play XBox together, we FaceTime a lot. I keep in touch with him and he’s a good friend of mine,” Hillman said.
Mitchell will likely sign with the Blackhawks after his sophomore season at Denver. The Pioneers avenged last year’s tournament loss to Ohio State with a 2-1 win over the Buckeyes on Friday. They’ll play American International, who upset top seed St. Cloud State, on Saturday for a spot in the Frozen Four in Buffalo, New York. Mitchell has six goals and 21 assists in 37 games this season. He also had a goal and two assists in five games for Canada at the World Junior Championship.
“I’m not sure what he’s going to do, but I just know when he makes his decision to go pro it’s the right time because he’s a smart kid and he’ll know,” Hillman said.
If Mitchell does sign, Hillman is hopeful the two will be able to reunite and play together again.
“I love playing with Ian,” Hillman said with a wide smile. “I think he really complimented my game. He’s more of that offensive defenseman and I’m more of a stay at home safety net. I think we really read plays together well and we broke up plays. We were always talking when we got back to bench. If we had a bad shift we’d talk about it and just make sure we go out there next shift and do something positive.
“I would love to play with him, but if that doesn’t happen for a little bit than I understand.”
Hillman has a decision of his own to make on whether he’ll re-sign with the Blackhawks after this season.
“I haven’t really thought about it at all. Whatever happens, happens and it is what it is,” he said. “All you can do is come to the rink everyday and want to get better. I just know I want to continue to play hockey and do what I love everyday, so whether it be here or somewhere else (it’ll work out).
“I’m hoping it’s (with the Blackhawks) because I really enjoy it here.”