Sherbrooke Phoenix's Justin Gill enjoying breakout season with eyes on NHL again

Fuelled by motivation from a down moment, Justin Gill has turned the corner in his junior hockey career.

The 19-year-old Sherbrooke Phoenix centre has been enjoying a breakout season as one of the QMJHL’s top scorers, sitting second in points (31) and goals (15) through 17 games. After not having his named called at this summer’s NHL draft, Gill made sure to be back better than ever.

“Obviously it's not the best feeling, but at the same time I was expecting it,” the Montreal native said. “I didn't have like the best season at 17 years old and with the pandemic and all that stuff it was pretty hard for me. Every game that I could play, I had to play my best game. And like I said, I wasn't in the best shape at that time.

“When the draft was going on, I had maybe that little hope a scout like really liked me, but at the end of the day, that just gave me motivation to be back stronger the year after, and I think that that's what I did.”

Following the 2022 draft, Gill received an invite to camp from the Vancouver Canucks. Despite going unsigned, he left with an experience that would help shape the season he is currently having.

“I wasn't mad or anything (at being unsigned) … I just took that experience to Sherbrooke and just try to put in action — what they taught me there and what they told me to do,” Gill said. “It was really, really helpful for me, and I think that gave me a lot of experience and a lot of new things to learn how to be a full hockey player.”

The six-foot-one, 190-pound forward is currently in his fourth year in the QMJHL, having been drafted by the Charlottetown Islanders in the second round (32nd overall) of the 2019 draft.

After a quiet rookie season, he was traded to Sherbrooke during the 2020-21 season in a deal that involved three picks and two players. In 2020-21, his first full year with the Phoenix, he had his best year posting just 46 points (20 goals, 26 assists) in 68 games.

But with former star Xavier Parent out of the picture and playing in the ECHL, Gill has taken the step up his side needed, even with last season’s leader in points, Joshua Roy and top 2023 draft prospect Ethan Gauthier alongside him.

“We knew that we need some guys (that) are 19 years old to take a step forward — not only on the ice, but point wise,” said Sherbrooke head coach and general manager Stephane Julien.

“We don't put pressure on points but then we know that when you lose (106) points and (51) goals from Parent, you need guys to step up and he did. I mean, he came in, and right up the start had some points in every game and so far, he took Parent’s spot which helps a lot for us.”

In the process, Gill has caught the eyes of scouts across the NHL.

“Every team ask about him now. I know when they ask for Gauthier, his name always comes up and I think what they like from Justin, the NHL teams, is progression from the last 2 1/2 years with us, and he’s got everything like NHL teams looking for," Julien said.

"He's a centre, big guy, can play physical, go play wing. He wins faceoffs, he's got an NHL shot. So, if we improve his skating, he's got any talent that other guys have in the NHL so far. That's why most NHL teams have some interest on him, because they see the progression and the package he has to play in the NHL.”

Gill has made his way onto the NHL Central Scouting preliminary watch list for next year’s draft with a ‘C’ rating, indicating a fourth to sixth round candidate.

“He wasn’t even really on my draft radar last year. … But now, you say, ‘OK, well what’s going into the production? Is it just that he’s better?’ And I think the level of production that he has right now, that really opens your eyes,” said FloHockey NHL draft analyst Chris Peters.

“I think NHL teams also have taken a much closer at second year and third-year eligible players to draft just because they have a little bit more of a book on them,” Peters added. “So that gives them a little bit more comfort in terms of where the player is in their development and where they’re going next.”

As he continues to work on his game, Gill understands the opportunity in front of him with 51 games left on the season.

“It's my last year of eligibility for the initial draft, so I'm really aiming to finally get drafted,” Gill said. “I think I deserve it if I keep putting the work that I'm doing right now. So I'm really focusing on that. Individually, (the goal is) to get drafted this year.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 9, 2022.

Abdulhamid Ibrahim, The Canadian Press