January 15, 2014

Risin' Friar: Providence's ascension hinges on goalie Gillies

By Andrew Merritt

Has goalie Jon Gillies (South Portland, Maine) changed the balance of power in Hockey East? (Photo by Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)

There are a lot of places Jon Gillies could have ended up.

There’s Northeastern, where he originally committed for the 2012-13 season before incumbent goaltender Chris Rawlings decided to stay for his senior year.

There’s New Hampshire, where his father, Bruce, is still 10th in career games played (71) and save percentage (.893).

There’s Denver, where his uncle Chris played goal, or even Norwich, where his grandfather, Bruce Sr., was a goaltender. There’s also Quebec, where he could have played for his idol.

It’s safe to say the folks at Providence are pretty happy with Gillies’ ultimate choice.

Since he arrived at Providence in 2012, Gillies (South Portland, Maine) has been one of the finest young netminders in the country. As a freshman, he was named Rookie of the Year by Hockey East, the Hockey Commissioners’ Association and the New England Hockey Writers Association, and he was a semifinalist for the Walter Brown Award after posting five shutouts, a 2.08 goals-against average and a .931 save percentage — ninth best in the country.

As a sophomore, he’s only gotten better. At the Christmas break, Gillies had the sixth-best save percentage in the nation (.941), and his three shutouts were tied for the best mark in the country. With some help from an improved Providence defense, he also was tied for the seventh-best GAA in the country (1.88). And while other collegiate goalies were spending the holidays playing in tournaments here in the States, Gillies was selected as one of three goaltenders on the American squad that went to Malmo, Sweden, for the 2014 World Junior Championships.

And yet, were it not for some changes at Northeastern, it’s possible none of this would have happened. After the 2011 departure of coach Greg Cronin (Arlington, Mass.), who took an assistant job with the Toronto Maple Leafs after six years behind the Huskies’ bench, Gillies — then a highly touted recruit – met with new coach Jim Madigan (Milton, Mass.).

To his credit, Gillies said, Madigan gave him an out.

“We talked about kind of reaffirming my commitment to Northeastern, and I left there still a Husky,” said Gillies, who had watched his cousin, Jason Braun, play goal at the school from 1998-2002. “But Mr. Madigan told me that he wanted to keep his word as much as he appreciated that I kept mine. He told me that with Chris Rawlings eligible to come back again, he wanted to show me the same trust and good faith that I showed him — that if Chris Rawlings came back, he would release me from my (national letter of intent) if that’s what I wanted, so I could pursue other options.

“When Chris came back, that’s what it came down to.”

Rawlings had a decent if unspectacular senior year, and Gillies had a decision to make once again. The day he graduated from Cathedral High School in Indianapolis, he sat with his mother and father in the billet house where he’d been staying while playing for the USHL’s Indiana Ice, with his family advisor on the phone.

The options were plenty, from nearby Notre Dame to Providence back in New England, to a very tempting offer from the Quebec Remparts of the QMJHL, who happened to have Patrick Roy as their coach and general manager.

“It was kind of surreal the first time (Roy) called me, and told me what he liked about my game and that he wanted me on his team,” Gillies said. “It took a few minutes to sink in, who was on the other end of that phone.”

Roy rolled out the red carpet for Gillies, at one point taking a red-eye flight while on vacation with his family to meet the young prospect in Quebec for a visit. So strong was the pull of playing for one of the game’s living legends, in fact, that when Gillies made his decision to go to Providence instead of the Remparts, Bruce decided to have his son call new Friar coach Nate Leaman — but not Roy.

Through 15 games, Gillies was 10-1-3 with a 1.88 GAA and .941 save percentage. (Photo by Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)

“I think he knew it might have swayed my decision,” Gillies said with a laugh.

It was no capricious choice for Gillies, either. Though both options held plenty of promise for a young netminder with an eye on turning pro down the road, Gillies chose to go to Providence and play for Leaman, who already had a great track record after several successful years at Union.

“As hard as it would’ve been to say no to either place, it came down to development purposes and which route was best for me,” Gillies said.

It didn’t take long for Leaman to see that he had something special in his new goaltender.

“I would say at Christmastime (2012), we realized that Jon is a very good goalie, and has potential to be one of the best at this level,” said Leaman, who also said he was surprised to find out Gillies was decommitting from Northeastern in the first place.

“I think it surprised everybody in college hockey a little bit,” he said.

The surprise turn of events has worked out incredibly well for Providence, which has established itself as a contender for the Hockey East title — and more — after a long string of also-ran years.

Gillies is no small part of that ascendance. On the ice, he uses his 6-foot-5 frame adroitly, and where some gigantic goalies might try to get away with bad fundamentals by leaning on their size, Gillies is rarely caught out of position — even when there’s a maelstrom around him. His technical proficiency, Leaman said, reflects an inner composure.

“There’s not a lot that rattles him at all, and I think if he lets in a bad one it doesn’t rattle him at all,” Leaman said. “The biggest compliment I can give him is that to be mature, you’ve got to learn to win in many different ways, and Jonny’s proved he’s mature enough to do that.”

Leaman cited as an example the Friars’ game against UMass on Jan. 11, 2013. Gillies had just returned from winning the gold medal with Team USA in the World Junior Championships, and he had allowed four goals on just 18 shots through the first two periods.

“He put it on lockdown in the third,” Leaman said. Gillies stopped all 12 shots the Minuteman took, and Providence rode a Stefan Demopoulos goal to a 5-4 victory.

The next night, Gillies stopped 44 shots — 21 in the second period — to shut out UMass in a 2-0 win.

Jim McNiff, the Providence goalie coach, said working with his prized pupil is a breeze.

“It’s the easiest thing in the world to do,” McNiff said. “When a goalie has such poise and confidence, and the compete level he has, it just makes the job so much easier. He’s probably one of the most competitive goalies I’ve ever worked with. It’s not something you see all the time, but something I see with our training sessions — you can see it in his eyes.”

The future is somewhat unclear. There’s a good chance the Calgary Flames, who selected Gillies in the third round of the 2012 draft, will be interested in having him turn pro after his sophomore season has ended sometime this spring. Then again, with Calgary having fired GM Jay Feaster and assistant GM John Weisbrod in December, the shape of things may change in Alberta.

Gillies said he called Feaster and Weisbrod after they were dismissed by the Flames.

“They believed in me by drafting me, and that’s been phenomenal to my development process,” he said. “I wished them the best of luck in their future endeavors, and I can’t thank them enough for what they’ve done for me.”

He also was encouraged by what team president Brian Burke, a Providence native and PC alum himself, had to say following the firings.

“Mr. Burke had a great comment; he simply said, ‘Players play, coaches coach, management manages. Know your role and do your job.’ ” Gillies said. “That’s kind of what I’ve been focusing on.”

That focus has allowed him to do his job quite well, and whether he’s doing it next season in the black and silver of Providence or the red and white of the Flames, Gillies has shown a remarkable ability to make every decision about his career with the same kind of poise and focus that he has used to make so many of the right decisions between the pipes.

Twitter: @A_Merritt
Email: amerritt@hockeyjournal.com