CHICAGO -- Blake Hillman made his NHL debut with the Chicago Blackhawks against the Colorado Avalanche at Pepsi Center on March 30, about seven miles from where he played college hockey at the University of Denver.
Hillman appeared in four regular-season games and scored his first NHL goal against the St. Louis Blues on April 4. The glimpse of what to expect in the NHL had a big impact.
"I still don't know if it really has hit me," Hillman said. "It was incredible and I thought just getting a taste for something, especially the NHL, it's something you always dream of as a kid. It was really special and something I'll never forget."
Now the 22-year-old defenseman is ready to see if he can be a part of the Blackhawks for more than a few games. He'll return to Chicago in August to prepare for training camp, where he'll be one of several players including Erik Gustafsson, 26, and Gustav Forsling, 22, vying for one or two spots on defense. Henri Jokiharju, 19, may also be ready to make the jump to the NHL after two seasons with Portland of the Western Hockey League.
Hillman knows it won't be easy but he's ready for the challenge.
"I have a great opportunity ahead of me and my coaching staff at Denver's really prepared me well for this," he said. "Obviously, the goal is to make the team out of training camp, to be on the opening night roster. But if that doesn't happen and I go to [the American Hockey League], that's how it is.
"You have to work hard. If you want to be where the great players are, you have to work hard and earn it."
Selected in the sixth round (No. 173) of the 2016 NHL Draft, Hillman had 12 points (three goals, nine assists) in 41 games of his junior season at Denver, where coach David Carle said he made great strides every season.
"Throughout his three years here, his puck pressure and gaps improved," Carle said. "His ability to take away time and space in the neutral zone with a good stick, and to move laterally and close plays off before the blue line, really improved. We really try and get our defensemen to skate forward as much as we can get them. It was a concept that was new to him but he grasped it and picked it up. It allowed him to break plays up in the neutral zone, turn pucks up and we could go back down and play offense in the other team's defensive zone."
Carle didn't get to see Hillman make his NHL debut because he and his coaches were recruiting, but said those few games should give Hillman confidence.
"Any time you can do that, you bring a guy in and let him experience what it's all about, it gives them an expectation of what to expect the following year," Carle said. "Hopefully it sends them home hungry to get back to that level and to play for that club. It was good for Blake to be able to do that and gain confidence going into the summer and know he can play at that level. Hopefully he'll make a good impression at camp and start there."