Calgary Flames prospect Jon Gillies has made an instant impact on college hockey in his first season. The South Portland, Maine native has been a major component in Providence College's resurgence this season. The Friars currently sit in fourth place in Hockey East, the conference that has produced four of the last five NCAA national champions.
Fourth place might not seem like much of an accomplishment to outsiders, but the Providence program had hit rock bottom. One of the founding members of Hockey East had missed the league's playoffs three years in a row, leading to the ouster of coach Tim Army. Second year bench boss Nate Leaman accomplished a major recruiting coup late this past summer when Gillies de-committed from Northeastern and signed on with Providence.
Gillies was selected in the third round, 75th overall, by Calgary in this past summer's NHL Entry Draft. Standing tall at 6'5", Gillies covers a lot of the net and is positionally very sound. The freshman came in and made an instant impact. He has shown poise beyond his years, basically carrying a young team on his back.
After a game late in January, Leaman spoke of Gillies' ability to bounce back from adversity. "I thought Gillies played terrific, which is a good sign for us. He struggled last night and as a freshman he was able to come back with a great game. In that overtime he did a heck of a job." The game came after two of his poorest outings as a Friar. Gillies bounced back to make some big saves in a 3-3 tie at nationally ranked Boston University.
Gillies has four shutouts on the season, including a recent 1-0 win over a very talented New Hampshire team. Leaman boasted after the game about his freshman goaltender. "He was terrific and he needed to be."
Another positive sign is how well grounded the 19 year-old is. He often will deflect the attention from himself, choosing to focus on how well his teammates played in the game.
Gillies missed three games over the break while playing for the gold-medal winning United States team at the World Junior Championships in Ufa, Russia. The Friars gave up four goals in each game he missed, which is a big difference from Gillies' 2.10 goals against average.
Besides maybe Mike Collins at Merrimack, one could argue that no player in Hockey East has been more valuable to his team's success this season than Jon Gillies. With Gillies in the fold, Nate Leaman's team will certainly be a tough out in this year's Hockey East playoffs.
Jeff Cox covers college hockey for SBNation. Follow him on twitter @JeffCoxSBNation.