The Toronto Maple Leafs selected American center Auston Matthews with the first overall pick in the 2016 National Hockey League (NHL) Entry Draft. Eighty-six picks later, the Washington Capitals drafted an American center of their own in the third round. That center was Garrett Pilon.
Five years later, Pilon is coming into his own as a leading player for the Hershey Bears. In his third season with the Bears, Pilon has arguably been the team’s best skater.
Pilon may have been destined to be a pro hockey player. A native of Mineola, New York, Pilon was born while his father, Rich, was playing for the New York Islanders. Being a hockey player is in Garrett’s blood.
After being drafted by the Capitals in 2016, Pilon headed back to the Kamploops Blazers in the Western Hockey League for the 2016-17 season. He played in four fewer games than he did in the 2015-16 season, but improved his numbers across the board. Pilon netted 20 goals, five more than the previous season, and upped his assist total to 45, an increase of 13 helpers. He also bettered his play in his own end and ended with a plus/minus rating of plus 26 (compared to being a plus one the season prior).
Following the WHL season, Pilon got his first taste of professional hockey when he suited up for Hershey in a Calder Cup playoff game against Providence.
Although he played for the Bears in the playoffs, Pilon was ineligible to play for Hershey in the 2017-18 season because of age and remaining junior eligibility. He returned to Kamploops and compiled 18 goals and 26 assists for the Blazers in 39 games before being traded to the Everett Silvertips. The trade did not slow Pilon down, as he potted 16 goals and dished out 20 assists in 30 games in Everett to finish the regular season with 80 points.
In the 2018 WHL playoffs, Pilon continued his scoring run. He led the Silvertips in scoring, tallying 11 goals and adding 17 assists. Pilon and Everett advanced all the way to the Ed Chynoweth Cup finals before falling to Swift Current in six games.
There was no opportunity for Pilon to join Hershey for the Calder Cup playoffs, as the Bears suffered through their worst season in 25 years and finished dead last in the American Hockey League (AHL) with 69 points.
Pilon arrived in Hershey for his first professional season and the franchise had a new head coach in Spencer Carbery. The entire organization was looking to put the disastrous 2017-18 season behind them and get back to winning ways. Pilon was part of a deep rookie class that featured goalie Ilya Samsonov and fellow forwards Beck Malenstyn, Brian Pinho and Shane Gersich.
The rookies helped the Bears turn their fortunes around. Hershey increased their point total by 25 from the previous season. The 94 points placed them third in a tough Atlantic Division that included the regular season champion Charlotte Checkers and seven teams that had 80 or more points. Pilon finished sixth on the team in scoring as a rookie, amassing 33 points (10 goals, 23 assists). He was named the team’s rookie of the year at the end of the season. In the Calder Cup playoffs, Pilon played in all nine of Hershey’s games and contributed five assists. The Bears were swept out of the playoffs in the second round by eventual champion, Charlotte.
Using their playoff loss as motivation, Hershey played at a championship level. The Bears won 37 games and had 81 points after 62 games. They trailed the Providence Bruins by one point for the divisional and conference lead when the AHL shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Pilon was a big part of that success. Splitting time between center and right wing, he potted 18 goals. That total was the third most on the team and was eight more than he scored as a rookie. He also finished fifth on the team in scoring with 36 points. Pilon improved his defensive play, going from a minus four as a rookie to a plus seven as a second-year player.
Despite his solid season, Pilon was not invited to the bubble by Washington when the NHL resumed their postseason. Pilon took it personally and used his exclusion as a catalyst to enhance his overall game heading into this season. It is about “being a consistently reliable player down here,” Pilon said in a recent postgame interview.
Pilon has definitely been reliable. He has recorded a point in eight of Hershey’s 11 games and has only been a minus in one of his last nine games. He is a plus seven during that stretch. Overall, Pilon is tied for second among Hershey forwards in plus/minus with a plus five rating. He has been more physical in his play and that has helped him to cause more turnovers.
Offensively, Pilon has been a driving force. He has posted a team-high 11 points thus far, and dished out a team-leading nine helpers. That number has him tied for second in the AHL in assists. Pilon also leads the team with three power play assists.
Pilon’s vision was on display in the overtime winner against Binghamton on Sunday. The Bears had extended pressure in the offensive zone and Pilon had control of the puck. He spotted Martin Fehervary jumping onto the ice and hit the defenseman in stride with perfectly placed backhanded pass. Fehervary fired his shot in for a 4-3 win.
— NoVa Caps (@NoVa_Caps) March 7, 2021
Earlier in the game, Pilon gave Hershey a 3-2 advantage when he scored his second goal of the season on what seemed like a harmless shot. “I saw a lot of traffic and just wanted to get the puck on net,” Pilon said. “It found its way.”
— NoVa Caps (@NoVa_Caps) March 7, 2021
While his second goal of the season “found its way” in, Pilon’s opening marker of the campaign was nothing short of sensational. In the first period of a game in Newark against the Binghamton Devils on February 26, he received a pass from Mike Sgarbossa on the goal line. Pilon skated backwards towards the goal. He then pulled the puck between his legs and roofed his backhanded shot over the blocker of Binghamton goalie Gilles Senn.
— NoVa Caps (@NoVa_Caps) February 27, 2021
The highlight-reel goal is just one example of Pilon’s growing confidence. It’s a confidence that is guiding Pilon to the NHL. “I want to make the NHL. This isn’t satisfying to be here,” he stated. Pilon did not mean that as a slight to the Bears. He said that he is “happy to play hard for Hershey.” He meant it as the AHL is not his ultimate goal. “My goal is to be in Washington.”
The way Pilon is playing, that ultimate goal is within reach.
By Eric Lord
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