"Each man delights in the work that suits him best."
If you stopped a Washington Capitals fan on the street and asked him or her, “name six Capitals defensemen,” you might hear the name “Jack Hillen,” but if you did, it would not be the first one…or the second…or perhaps even the third.
Those same Caps fans might not know that Hillen finished third among Caps defensemen in goals and points, finished third in plus-minus, was one of only two Capital defensemen with game-winning goals, and had the second best shooting percentage among defensemen. He did it in only 23 games. Seven Capital defensemen played in more games in the 2013 season.
What is perhaps more impressive about Hillen’s numbers is that he achieved them largely in the last ten games in which he appeared in the regular season. His season got off to something less than an auspicious start when he lasted only 3:29 in the season opener, suffering a shoulder injury courtesy of a hit from Tampa Bay’s Vincent Lecavalier. He missed the Caps’ next 25 games, then managed to record only one assist in 12 games after his return.
In his last ten games of the regular season, though, Hillen went 3-5-8, plus-8, while averaging 16 minutes of ice time per game. Those last ten games reflected a change in pairings for Hillen. Over the course of the season Hillen spent 90 percent of his 5-on-5 ice time split primarily between two players – John Carlson (53 percent) and Steve Oleksy (37 percent). It was with Oleksy that Hillen scored all three of his goals and recorded half of his six assists for the season.
What is perhaps surprising is that among Capital defensemen having played in more than five games, Hillen had by far the best goals against/on ice per game, and only John Erskine had a better goals against/on ice per 60 minutes at 5-on-5. He had more advantageous zone starts (only Tomas Kundratek had a higher percentage of offensive zone starts) and benefited from both better quality of teammates and lesser quality of competition (numbers from behindthenet.ca). These factors moderate the defensive statistics somewhat, but Hillen could be credited with having taking advantage of those situations.
The “Southeast Division” effect seemed less pronounced with Hillen than with many of his teammates. That might be as much a function of his missing 25 of the season’s first 26 games, when the Caps struggled (11-14-1 overall, 4-11-1 outside the Southeast Division). Nevertheless, Hillen was 1-3-4, plus-7, in nine games against the Southeast and 2-3-5, plus-2, in 14 games against other Eastern Conference teams.
Odd Hillen Stat… The Caps were 16-5-2 in games in which Hillen appeared in the 2013 season. He averaged almost three more minutes of ice time per game in wins (18:31) than he did in losses (15:32).
Game to Remember… April 9th vs. Montreal. In what amounted to a “statement” game for the Caps – the Caps had gone 22 straight games without winning a game against a playoff qualifier in regulation time – Hillen assisted on the go-ahead goal and scored the game-winner himself in the Caps’ 3-2 win over the Canadiens at Bell Centre. The two points for Hillen gave him four over two games, the first time he accomplished that feat in his career.
Game to Forget… January 19th vs. Tampa Bay. Sure, it was a modest contract by free agency standards – a one-year deal for $650,000 – but there is still the desire to impress one’s new employers that they are getting value for their dollar. Hillen lasted six shifts in his first game. His first shift ended after 13 seconds when the Lightning took a penalty, and the power play unit came on for the Caps. His second shift ended after 44 seconds when Vincent Lecavalier scored for the Lightning to make the score 2-1, Tampa Bay. His fifth shift lasted four seconds when the Lightning took another penalty, and his sixth – and last shift for the evening – lasted 30 seconds until Lecavalier deposited Hillen into the boards, ending his night and putting him out for the next 25 games.
Post Season… In a sense the Capitals were exposed through Hillen’s production in their seven-game series against the Rangers. He is not a shutdown defenseman, but rather one who can chip in support minutes against lesser competition among his team’s opponents and who can contribute on the offensive end. Against the Rangers, Hillen contributed little offense – one assist and only seven shots on goal. In one of the stranger playoff facts, Hillen was on ice for five goals against in the series, all of them in losses and three of them being game-winning goals by the Rangers. The depth that Hillen seemed to provide in the regular season was not as evident in the series against New York.
In the end…
It is hard to know what to make of Hillen’s year. Losing more than the first half of the season to injury while trying to find a place on a new team with a new coach is not the easiest way to make a living, but Hillen produced in the second half, and especially down the stretch when his health returned. The post-season is troubling, though. It raises the question whether the Capitals have sufficient depth on defense. Not the sort of depth that a 7/8 defenseman can provide in the event of injury, but whether the Caps have it on the three skating pairs. Injury did affect the mix, primarily Dmitry Orlov losing almost the entire season to the effects of a concussion. But while a third pair of Jack Hillen and Steve Oleksy makes a pretty good regular season story, in the merciless cauldron of playoff hockey, it can be – and was – exposed just enough to help send the Capitals packing after the first round.
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