Josh Pillar will be a minor name in the big O’Reilly trade that the Leafs just made. He is not a high profile prospect, he was not taken in the first round, and I am just going to guess that most Leafs fans don’t follow other teams’ prospects in depth.
So, I wanted to look into him and find out if Pillar was a hidden gem that Dubas sought in the deal, or if he was a throw in for convenience of either the Wild or the Leafs.
THE BASICS: STATS AND CONTEXT
Weight: 172 lbs
Birth date: Feb 14, 2002
Drafted: 4th round, 127th overall in 2021
When Josh Pillar was drafted by Minnesota in 2021, he was taken as an overager — his first year of eligibility was in the 2020 draft. He had some hype after being a first round draft pick in the WHL, but he never really developed into a star. In the WHL, he has merely been a very good player.
He had 44 points in 63 games in his first draft year, if you were wondering how he went undrafted in 2020. While he had a somewhat favourable scouting report for his skating, two-way play and flashes of skill, there were issues that limited his effectiveness. Here’s what was written about him in EP’s 2020 draft guide:
The issues with Pillar’s game all boil down to one word: execution. A skilled passer, he hits teammates with look-off cross-slot passes while moving and the occasional backhand dish through layers, but he looks to beat the defender before passing, rather than the other way around. Individualism leads to missed opportunities to create better chances for himself by beating defenders to pockets of space to get open.
His rush patterns worsened through the season, becoming increasingly reliant on straight-line attacks instead of the dot line-crossing rushes that allowed him to deceive defenders and gain the inside.
In the 2021 draft season, there was a little thing called the COVID-19 pandemic that greatly shortened the WHL season. He played in 22 games, and had 11 goals and 29 points, which led Kamloops. That would be around a 90 point pace for a normal season, and with the surge in production came a much improved all-around game.
In this short year, Pillar was used in all situations, he showed a much improved shot, and added some of that missing consistency to his game. You can see him score a few absolute snipe-shot goals in the highlight reel below from the 2021 draft season.
But the season after he was drafted went... badly. He started the year with Kamloops again but was producing at a slower pace than the season before. Then he was traded to Saskatoon “due to a private medical situation”, since it was closer to home. He had missed some time as a result of that health issue, and when he got into some games with Saskatoon his production had really dropped off.
This season, on a very good Saskatoon team, Pillar still hasn’t really gotten his production to where it was in his D+1 season. He’s missed a lot of time again, this time because of a knee injury. He’s been mostly used as a center on the second line before his injury. He only just returned to the lineup literally on the night of the O’Reilly trade.
Before I jump into breaking down his skills, I want to add a caveat. I’m relying more than usual on what I’m reading that other scouting folk have said, when it comes to my prospect reports. This is because I only have watched some games of his with Kamloops and Saskatoon while watching Minten and Lisowsky respectively. I have one game of Saskatoon’s from this season that I had recorded where he actually played. So I haven’t really seen that much of him.
Pillar gets great reviews for his skating, in fact it may be his most standout skill. That said, it’s not necessarily because he is the fastest in a straight line. He is certainly fast, but I would say it is merely very good, not elite. He gets excellent reviews for his skating in terms of mechanics and how he uses his pace and agility. Changing speeds, crossovers, footwork, balance, and so on all help him be as effective as he is.
Here’s what EP Rinkside’s draft profile said about his skating:
The foundation of Kamloops Blazers forward Josh Pillar’s game is skating, starting with his ankle mobility. He pushes his knees over his toes, which allows him to fully sink back into stride (although he tilts his hips forward just a touch too much sometimes), using the length of his skate blade to generate power. He recovers his skates under his body, toes point in the direction of travel with minimal wasted energy. His crossovers are nearly as impressive, consistently completing full extensions with seamless integration into his rushes. Fully loaded cutbacks exited with a crossover give him a separation tool along the boards.
While the sturdy foundation makes Pillar quick, he’s not a true speedster. However, his pace is a legitimate weapon, maintaining speed through every little maneuver and pass reception. He identifies opportunities to further his speed advantage by baiting the defender with changes of pace and hesitations, then accelerating once they reach.
Here’s a decent example from one of his games this season. He’s #72 in blue, he has good agility to evade checkers, is always moving at a good pace to be involved in the play, and has his feet pointed in the direction they need to be for his shot and angle of attack.
If skating isn’t Pillar’s biggest weapon, you could argue it’s his shooting. It has seemingly come a long way since his draft year. He can really rip and snipe a wrist shot now. His skating helps a lot with this, when it comes to his footwork. He can get a good, hard and accurate shot off in situations where others can’t, because he’s able to set his feet and his body in a position where he actually can.
Pillar also has a pretty darn good slap shot/one-timer as well, which helps him mostly on the powerplay from what I’ve seen. With Kamloops he seemed to be used more down low, but with Saskatoon he seems to be used more on the point, in the Ovechkin spot. Example:
Faceoff win ➡️ Goal— Saskatoon Blades (@BladesHockey) November 26, 2022
Josh Pillar unleashes a wicked one-timer for his 4th of the season! pic.twitter.com/6His5DLUr9
Pillar is good at handling the puck on his stick. He is not easy to knock off the puck or have it stolen, but I wouldn’t say that he has elite dangles. His biggest problem is not necessarily wanting to give up the puck to a teammate that much. He’ll try and hold onto the puck too long, and even if he’s pretty good at keeping control of it, he’s not so good that he won’t still have some turnovers just from continually giving the other team more chances to create one.
I’m going to include playmaking along with his puck handling because the two seem linked. If he can learn to try and make plays and pass the puck more often, it would help a lot of his issues that limit his offensive impact. He does have more assists than goals, but from what I’ve seen a lot of his assists aren’t really from him making a deliberate pass. It’s from rebounds, him losing the puck in the slot, and so on. This is something where I acknowledge it may be an issue of me just not seeing the right games, but his puck movement in general is more reliant on him carrying it himself. I will also note that some scouting reports note he is a pretty good passer.
Josh Pillar - No look pass to Stankoven. pic.twitter.com/7FhZR9hFpR— Joel Henderson (@dathockeydoe) April 2, 2020
Pillar’s “hockey IQ” is a mixed bag, which is one of many reasons why using it as a catchall is annoying. I’ve already talked about how his lack of awareness (or choice to ignore) the option to pass the puck off to teammates. But he is pretty “smart” when it comes to identifying soft areas on the ice to receive the puck, and positional play.
It’s also something that comes through on Pillar’s two-way play, which is the third skill of his that can arguably be considered his best. It’s something that pretty much every scouting report remarks on in a positive way, and it comes through on his microstats that I showed above.
While his offensive game has plenty of room to grow, his defensive presence is his calling card as he uses his sound positioning and an active stick to disrupt passing lanes and acts as a calming presence who can slow plays down in his own.
This is an area where Pillar’s defense helps drive offensive impacts. He can read plays and pick off or deflect passes, and create turnovers. This is why he’s been used a lot on the PK by Kamloops and Saskatoon. It’s also why he gets good ratings and reviews for his transitions — creating turnovers in his own end helps exit the zone and counter attack quickly with control.
His skating, awareness and good reads also helps him offensively when it comes to forechecking. He’s not a big guy, but he plays a bit of a power game. You won’t see him throw big hits, but he’s a pretty effective and hard forechecker, and fights hard in puck scrums along the boards to come out with the puck. This is where talking more about his “pace” than his “speed” comes in — he is always moving and relentless in puck pursuit. In the defensive zone and on forechecks, it helps drive offensive chances for his team.
Pillar has some interesting tools. His skating, his shot and his forechecking/two-way play are his standout skills. Without having watched all that much of him yet, I can’t really say if I think those skills are high-end enough where you can consider him as a potential bottom six forward in the NHL.
What may wind up happening is the Leafs try and sign him to an AHL deal, with the lure being that they have world class facilities and development teams to help him make the most out of his brief window to show he can make it as a pro. If he does well, they can sign him to an ELC like they have with other projects (e.g., McMann, Gogolev, Douglas).
Now that he’s healthy again in Saskatoon, I’ll have a chance to watch him more closely along with Lisowsky as they make their playoff run as one of the better teams in the WHL. I’ll mostly want to look at the kinds of skills that could help him become a bottom six guy: his penalty killing, two-way play, supporting skills like forechecking and board play, and so on.
Do you think Dubas may have gotten a diamond in the rough with Pillar?
This poll is closed
Like he always does, amirite?
I am logical and think we’ll have to wait and see
I am a logical bettor and I’m putting my money on no