Theme: “The firm, the enduring, the simple, and the modest are near to virtue.”
On July 3, 2012, free agent defenseman Jack Hillen signed a contract with the Washington Capitals to pay him $700,000 for the 2012-2013 season. The importance of the signing on that date probably ranked somewhere between Dallas signing Jaromir Jagr and Philadelphia signing Danny Syvret.
Nevertheless, Hillen was in the lineup on the night of January 19, 2013, Opening Night of the delayed 2012-2013 season. The record would show that he stepped onto the ice for his first shift as a Capital at the 6:24 mark of the first period, lining up for a faceoff just after an Eric Brewer goal that gave the Tampa Bay Lightning a 1-0 lead.
Five shifts later, his evening was over, courtesy of a check by Vincent Lecavalier behind the Capitals’ net that caught Hillen awkwardly just as he was releasing a pass along the end wall. Hillen was crumpled into the end boards shoulder first. Lecavalier was not penalized on the play. However, 11:43 into his first game as a Cap, Hillen was out. He would miss 25 games and would not return until March 16th against Boston.
Hillen played the last 22 games of the 2012-2013 season and went 3-6-9, plus-8 over that span. Given that Hillen received largely third pair minutes and little in the way of special teams minutes (about a minute per game combined in power play and shorthanded ice time), it was a respectable scoring line.
That scoring line was even more impressive if one considers that in his first 12 games back from injury he managed to record only a single assist. Over his last ten games he was 3-5-8, plus-8, and had points in six of those ten games.
When all was said and done, he set career bests in goals and points per game (not counting the 2007-2008 season in which he played in two games). And, whether coincidence or his contributions as a depth defender, the Caps were 16-4-2 with Hillen in the lineup after he returned from his shoulder injury.
Hillen, either despite of or as a product of his being something of an undersized defenseman, is a meat and potatoes sort, not given to flash, but for keeping things simple. Among Caps defensemen appearing in at least 20 games last season he led the club in Corsi/on-ice, was second in Corsi relative (the difference between his on-ice and off-ice values), tied for the team lead in PDO (sum of on-ice team shooting and save percentages), was second on the team in differential between penalties drawn and penalties taken, and had the second best on-ice goals against average at 5-on-5 for the Caps (source: behindthenet.ca).
Let me toss five numbers out there… 40, 69, 64, 55, 23. Those are the number of games Hillen played in each of his five full seasons. He has missed at least 45 games to injury over those five years (source: tsn.ca) for a variety of problems: foot, broken jaw, concussion, shoulder, and shoulder again. Durability has not been his hallmark. And whatever arbitrary standard you apply to scoring taakeaways and giveaways, his ratio of the former to the latter last year was not so good (2:13).
The Big Question… Is Jack Hillen a 50-game defenseman?
This could be an important question for the Caps because of the problems they have after their top three players at this position. When you get past Mike Green, John Carlson, and Karl Alzner, the drop off in talent and effectiveness is a bit precipitous. It is compounded by the fact that both John Erskine (the nominal “fourth” defenseman) and Hillen last year combined to play in only 53 games (roughly a full season’s worth in the shortened, 48-game season). And these are not anomalies. Erskine has played in more than 60 games in a season once in his 11 year career; Hillen has done so twice in five full seasons (though never as many as 70 games).
Hillen has averaged 50 games played in his five full NHL seasons. If that is what you can pencil him in for, then another defenseman – Dmitry Orlov, Tyson Starachan, Tomas Kundratek…someone – is going to have to fill that slot for a significant portion of the season.
In the end…
Jack Hillen is probably a better defenseman than he might be given credit for by Caps fans, perhaps a product of a low-key, keep it simple style. But there are durability issues that present serious problems for a club whose 4/5/6 defensemen might end up having to be filled by 7/8/9...or more defensemen over the course of the season. This is not, by itself, unusual. The Caps dressed 12 defensemen in 48 games last season. Injuries happen, players are benched, kids in the minors do well enough to deserve a look.
Hillen’s problem in being able to stay in the lineup has not been a succession of nicks and dings, but rather having to miss big chunks of time. Nine games to a broken jaw in 2010… eight games to a concussion the next season… 25 games to a shoulder injury last season. He is one piece of a brittle and shallow port side of the defense, once you get past Karl Alzner on the top pair. This is not something a team with playoff aspirations like the Caps can leave to a hope and a prayer that he will be a dependable and, more important, durable defenseman on the third pairing.
Projection: 55 games, 4-7-11, plus-4
Photo: Jared Wickerham/Getty Images North America