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Hill standing tall in latest opportunity with Coyotes

Rookie goaltender helping Arizona cope with Raanta injury

by Amalie Benjamin @AmalieBenjamin / Staff Writer

It was the last lesson of the day for Justin Cardinal, a goaltending coach in Calgary. Adin Hill, his student for several years, was 14, barely out of elementary school and tiny, maybe 5-foot-4 then. Yet something struck Cardinal that day.

"I came home and I told my wife, I actually said, 'This kid is going to play in the NHL,'" Cardinal said.

He was right. 

"His work habits, his attention to detail, everything he did, he did it with purpose," said Cardinal, the co-owner of Evolution Goaltending Consultants. "He's a special talent. … With him it was right away, at the age of 14, I knew that if he continued to love what he was doing that he was going to go the full distance."

Hill proved Cardinal correct last season. He made his NHL debut on Oct. 17, 2017, in Dallas, a loss to the Stars in which the goalie allowed two goals on 35 shots, with his youth goaltending coach watching in the stands. 

He went on to lose his first three NHL starts in October before being returned to Tucson of the American Hockey League. Recalled by the Coyotes for one more start later in the season, Hill earned his first win in a 4-3 shootout victory over the Los Angeles Kings on March 13, 2018.

Hill started in the AHL again this season before injuries to Antti Raanta and Darcy Kuemper necessitated his recall in late November. And Hill is taking advantage of his latest opportunity to play in the NHL.

The 22-year-old goaltender earned the NHL's second star of the week on Dec. 3, after saving 59 of 60 shots, and posting a 3-0-0 record, 0.43 goals-against average and .983 save percentage. He followed that up with another win, allowing one goal on 27 shots against the Los Angeles Kings on Dec. 4 for his fourth consecutive victory, before dropping games to the Washington Capitals and San Jose Sharks, and losing three of four. 

Video: ARI@LAK: Hill robs Carter with tough pad save

Hill is 5-3-0 in nine appearances this season with a 1.97 GAA, .926 save percentage and one shutout.

While it might seem obvious that a 6-foot-6, 202-pound goaltender with broad shoulders and vast athletic skills, chosen in the third round (No. 76) of the 2015 NHL Draft, should succeed in the NHL, that was far from a given for Hill. 

Remember, for a long time, it wasn't certain that he would clear the upper-reaches of five feet. And short goalies do not find their way on to too many NHL rosters these days.

When Hill arrived in training camp with Portland of the Western Hockey League as an invitee, he was 15, still short, still under-developed. Though his father was just over 6-feet and his mother was 5-foot-8 and his feet were large, no one quite knew when Hill might shoot up. 

Then, suddenly, the growth spurt that didn't seem to stop. 

In the span of about a year, Hill shot up. He was 5-foot-4, then 5-foot-10, then 6-foot-4, and now is listed at 6-foot-6. 

"I knew I was going to grow, for sure, I just didn't know I was going to grow so much," Hill said. "When I was 15 my feet were like size 12, so they were pretty oversized for my height. They're still the same size now. 

"Now my feet look a little more normal with my legs."

When his body grew, his game had to adjust, as well. He had the fundamentals down, and the athletic abilities needed to survive as a shorter goaltender. He just needed to marry his old skills with his new frame. 

"You could see he almost didn't really seem comfortable in his own body," Cardinal said. "We had to make some adjustments with his depth, how high he was playing in the net. We definitely brought it back a little bit. At the same time, because of his athleticism and because of the technical structure, it was just more so going back through with tactics to make things more efficient for him."

Hill no longer had to resort to pure athleticism to make saves. He became more structured. He adapted. 

"Back then I played a lot more of a scrambly game, kind of all over the place, trying to be fast and quick," Hill said. "In that time, I've had to change my game a lot. That game doesn't translate well to pro hockey. I grew and that definitely helps - you want to be big as a goalie - but at the same time, I had to make a lot of adjustments to my game, make it more simple, more controlled, try not to be diving and sliding all over the place. 

"It's been a big change for my game, but I feel like I'm still making the steps in that direction."

Video: STL@ARI: Hill denies Perron with tough sprawling stop

It helped that he was, as Cardinal noticed, devoted to the game. That was what stood out most with Portland. Most players would head to their hotels in between sessions at training camp, to rest and get away from hockey. Not Hill. He stayed. People noticed. 

"He would stay at the rink the whole day and just watch," said Portland associate coach Kyle Gustafson. "He would watch the other sessions. He would watch the other goalies. So, that caught our attention, just that he loved the game."

It also stood out that, as Gustafson recalled, Hill didn't allow a single goal that entire training camp.

Hill made the team, appeared in 115 games the next three seasons with Portland and was drafted in 2015 by Arizona.

Now he's in the NHL, proving he can ably fill in for injured veterans and, he hopes, begin a path toward becoming a regular starter himself.

It's a combination - the size, the athleticism, the confidence and fearlessness, the technical and tactical adjustments, the love - 

With Raanta out long term with a lower-body injury, the Coyotes say that they will go with a goaltender-by-committee approach. Hill is in the mix with Kuemper, who returned from his own injury against the Boston Bruins on Tuesday, and waiver-wire acquisition Calvin Pickard.

That will work in the short-term for Hill, but not in the long-term. As a young goalie, he needs playing time. It could come in the AHL with Tucson, or in the NHL, if he proves worthy of a good chunk of the starts. 

"In the long-term, we'll have to look at it," Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet said. "He's not going to sit on the bench."

Faced with the current situation, Hill said he's not going to change his approach. He's been through a three-goalie rotation before and learned to be patient.

"As soon as you start thinking about stuff happening on the ice or what they're thinking, that's when you mess up," Hill said. "I've just got to focus on myself and my game and try to make sure I'm working hard to get better each day - and when I get my opportunity in a game, try and shine."

It's how he got here in the first place, the focus and dedication and attention to detail. Now, he figures, it's how he'll stay.

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