Jack Hillen hasn’t been promised anything by the Capitals. He doesn’t know if he can crack the top-six and become a starting defenseman, if the team envisions him as a reliable No. 7 or if he will have to start his season in the minors at AHL Hershey.
But Hillen, who signed with Washington on Monday, will be paid like an NHLer no matter what after the Caps inked him to a one-year, one-way deal worth $650,000. Considering there were already seven defensemen under contract, it’s an intriguing move. Washington general manager George McPhee has long talked about needed depth on the blueline as injuries take their toll and Hillen has had his moments in a five-year career. He is still just 26, but was not extended a qualifying offer by the Nashville Predators last month and so became an unrestricted free agent.
Another in a line of solid skating, puck-moving defensemen, Hillen had some decent years with the New York Islanders before an Alex Ovechkin shot smashed into his face on Jan. 26, 2010. He missed seven weeks with a broken jaw and damaged teeth. Hillen posted virtually identical boxcar stats in 2009-10 and 2010-11 with New York – four goals, 18 assists, a -5 after scoring three goals with 18 assists and a -5 rating.
“No I haven’t talked to anybody about [a specific role] and I don’t expect to hear much about that until maybe training camp when you start battling other guys for a spot on the team,” Hillen said. “That’s pretty much what I’m thinking- I’m just going in there and will do my best in camp to earn my role or get a role on the team.”
The Caps have struggled in recent years to find defensemen willing to fill the depth role. John Erskine and Jeff Schultz – both scheduled to return next season – bristled at times when they were scratched last year. Steve Eminger had an agonizing 2007-08 season when he was shelved for weeks at a time and ended up playing only 20 games. Tyler Sloan asked to be traded last summer after one too many seasons shuttling between Washington and Hershey and the team had to buy out his contract when that request couldn’t be accommodated.
Hillen is another Colorado College graduate. He was teammates for two years with Joey Crabb, a forward who signed with the Caps earlier this week. That’s Hillen’s only connection to the team. He mirrored Crabb’s contention that moving from a non-playoff team like the Islanders, where he played his first four seasons, was an experience unto itself. He ended up moving to Nashville, a consistent playoff team like the Caps, if also one that’s never put together a deep run.
“Being with Nashville last year was such a change of pace for me from being with the Islanders,” Hillen said. “Nashville has had great success, especially recently, and seeing what it was like being around that winning organization really helped me and opened my eyes to a lot of things. I’m excited to be joining Washington, another successful organization, and I think what I learned from last year is what successful teams do.”
Could be that McPhee is stockpiling defensemen for a trade that would bring in another scoring winger. But it would likely take someone like Mike Green, a restricted free agent, or veteran Roman Hamrlik to add anyone of impact. Schultz and Erskine – even as part of a bigger package – are unlikely to get that done. More likely is the organization is stockpiling assets in case of injury. Hillen has enough experience to be trusted later on even if he doesn’t win a job out of training camp.
Hillen had just two goals and four assists for the Predators last year in 55 games. He did block 65 shots, a pretty solid rate for a guy who played such a limited depth role. He is a native of Minnetonka, Minn. and has appeared in 230 NHL games. Not the biggest guy at 5-foot-10, 190 pounds. But he was the WCHA defensive player of the year as a senior in 2008. He was signed by New York as an undrafted free agent.
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