Jason Willms has no interest in heading to the bakery any time soon. The only driving the second-year Barrie Colts forward is doing these days is to the front of the net and the only thing heating up is his scoring.
Willms has already doubled his point totals from his rookie year and there’s still a month left in the OHL season.
“I think it’s no secret I’m not the most flashiest player,” said the 19-year-old centre, who has 22 goals and 26 assists in 54 games this season, after recording 13 goals and 24 points as a rookie. “I think I’ve scored only one or two goals outside of the crease, but my dad always told me if you want bread go to the bakery. If you want goals, you go to the net.
“I kind of just got to go the net, put my stick on the ice and if it’s not off my stick it’s off something else and it finds its way in. They don’t ask you how, they ask you how many I guess.”
Willms is one of several Colts who have taken a huge step in their development on their second go-around in the league.
A third-round pick in 2015, the Kitchener native got his feet wet on a rebuilding Barrie club that would win just 15 times last season and finish last overall. While he and his teammates took their lumps, they gained a ton of experience, especially after the trade deadline in early January when the club moved some veterans.
“It was huge,” the six-foot, 184-pound forward said of the increase in his role. “Obviously, I remember Cordell James getting moved (to Owen Sound) at the deadline and that was a big name that freed up some ice time for guys like myself. I think the experience I got last year. . . I mean obviously I learned what it takes to win in this league. Going through last year it was no secret it was a tough year, but I think that myself, and other guys included, we learned from it and we’re starting to see the results this year.”
Asked what he’s seen as the biggest adjustment Willms has made this season, Dale Hawerchuk points to a player committed to do what it takes to improving his game at both ends of the rink.
“He’s just that reliable 200-foot player that plays hard,” the Colts head coach said of Willms. “He’s got an engine to compete. As he gets older, stronger and quicker he’s just getting better and better.”
For Willms, his determination to be an effective player at both ends of the rink comes with the realization that is what he needs to do if he wants to play pro hockey down the road. He’s played a significant role on the penalty killing unit and Hawerchuk has also used the hard working forward on the power play as a battering ram in front of the net.
“At that next level you need that 200-foot game,” said Willms, who along with his teammates opened their western road swing with an 8-5 Valentine’s Day win over the Flint Firebirds and take on the Windsor Spitfires Feb. 15. “I think that’s something I’ve improved on a lot this year.”
Evidence of his turnaround can also be found in his plus-minus totals. Last year he was a minus 29 and this year he’s an impressive plus 18. He’s become a reliable forward for the Colts and one that can be trusted regardless whether the team finds itself ahead or trailing in the game.
“I think for me it’s about getting better every day and not being satisfied,” Willms said. “I got off to a pretty good start personally and I just want to keep with it and keep learning. We’ve got some older guys and great skill guys in that room and I just want to keep learning every game.”
The strong start by the team and himself out of the gate proved a huge boost of confidence, but Willms credits a big part of that confidence from playing with linemates Jaden Peca and Zachary Magwood. The trio have all put up career best junior hockey numbers.
“We’ve been playing really well together and I think we’re at our best when we’re on that forecheck,” Willms said.
Willms ability to take his offensive game to another level was never more evident than earlier in the season when standout Russian forward Andrei Svechnikov was lost for some six weeks to a hand injury.
“Losing Svechnikov was a huge hit for us early in the year,” Willms said. “I think for myself it was an opportunity to step up and show that I can be an elite player in this league. I think everyone stepped up their game. Peca’s been huge for us. He’s almost quadrupled his point total from last year. I think that it shows to the character of this team.”
ICE CHIPS: Aaron Luchuk ran his scoring streak to 12 games with his OHL-leading 41st goal and two assists in the win over Flint. Luchuk, who is second overall in league scoring with 88 points, has seven goals and 18 assists for 25 points during the run. . . Svechnikov, who is away playing for Russia at the 2018 U-18 Five Nations Tournament in Plymouth, Mich. this week, is expected miss both road games and the Feb. 17 home date with the Niagara IceDogs.
Photo: Barrie Colts second-year forward has doubled his rookie year totals this season. Miranda Zilkowsky photo.