Pretty much everywhere Colton Gillies has played over the last six years, he's been one of the youngest guys in the dressing room.
He debuted in the Western Hockey League at age 15. When he made his National Hockey League debut for the Wild back in 2008, Gillies was just 19 years old.
Now at age 21 and in his fourth development camp this week at Xcel Energy Center, Gillies is one of the veterans. Drafted 16th overall in the 2007 Entry Draft, Gillies relishes his role as one of the leaders on the ice.
"I'm finally one of the old guys," Gillies said. "The years have flown by. I feel smarter and I've learned a lot over the last four years.
I've always tried to be a leader, so that's not really a big change for me. I'm just a little older, that's really the only difference I feel."
After skating in 45 games with the Wild in 2008-09, where he scored two goals and added five assists, Gillies spent last season in Houston -- where coach Kevin Constantine preached defense.
"I played almost a Cal Clutterbuck
role down there," Gillies said. "Skate around and hit guys and concentrate on improving in the defensive end."
A positive takeaway from his year in Houston was his consistent ice time. His 45 games in Minnesota two years ago meant a lot of nights watching from the press box, something that affected his play on nights when he was in the line up.
"Whenever I got the puck, I just wanted to go, go, go," Gillies said. "I needed to learn to be more like an Owen Nolan - get the puck and analyze things a little bit. I realize now that I can look more and I have time.
Take the time and slow things down a little bit. I got smarter as I adopted to the playing time."
Keeping in mind that Gillies is still just 21 years old, playing time might be a factor in where he ends up this season. With a roster full of veterans at the forward position, Gillies may be looking at another season of extended ice time with the Aeros.
But like any competitor, that won't affect how Gillies prepares for training camp this fall, where he says his goal is to earn a spot on the NHL roster. Should he not make the team out of camp, he would likely earn a callup at some point after a season in which General Manager Chuck Fletcher stayed away from bringing him up for fear of stunting his growth.
Even if he heads back to the AHL for another year of seasoning, Gillies should have more of an opportunity to showcase his considerable offensive skill. Gone is the more defensive system run by Constantine. In place is the more aggressive system implemented by new Aeros coach Mike Yeo.
The ability to flourish in the system is there for Gillies, who scored 24 goals among 47 points in 58 games in his final season with the Saskatoon Blades in the WHL. Following that season, he finished the year in Houston and scored eight points in 11 games.
"I know [the Wild] has a plan for me," Gillies said. "Their plan last year was for me to go down to Houston and develop defensively and get some ice time. I learned a lot down there."
The increased ice time in Houston also provided Gillies with the confidence needed to try and nab attention this fall when he tries to earn a spot with the Wild for the upcoming season. He says he has a clear idea of what he needs to do in order to fulfill his goal of playing with the big club this winter, and beyond.
"I need to come into camp; crash, bang, take the puck to the net and be responsible defensively," Gillies said. "I want to earn a spot on the [Wild], that's really my goal."