Washington defenseman Jack Hillen will draw back into the Capitals’ lineup this afternoon in Boston, playing for the first time since he suffered an upper body injury while absorbing a Vincent Lecavalier check into the boards during the Caps’ opening night contest in Tampa Bay on Jan. 19.
The day before the Caps’ last meeting with the Bruins on March 5 at Verizon Center, I took a few minutes to chat with Hillen. The 27-year-old Minnesota native signed a one-year deal with Washington as an unrestricted free agent last summer, but he has spent the last two months rehabbing his opening night injury.
“I’m good,” replied Hillen when I asked him how he was feeling and how his injury was coming along. “I’m getting better. I don’t want to give it a timeline because I really don’t have one. But I think I’m getting a lot closer here.”
Unfortunately for Hillen, he’s no stranger to sitting out with injuries. During the course of his six-year NHL career, he’s suffered through a foot injury, a broken jaw, a concussion, a shoulder injury and the upper body injury that
“It is super frustrating,” sighed Hillen. “My legs feel good, I feel really good right now. And it’s not a concussion where I don’t know how long it’s going to be. It’s just the type of injury that needs a lot of time to heal and it stinks. But what can I do about it? I’ve been injured before. It sucks.”
After a four-year collegiate career at Colorado College, Hillen signed a two-year entry level with the New York Islanders on April 1, 2008. He joined the Isles immediately, and got into two games at the tail end of the ’07-08 campaign, picking up his first NHL assist in the process.
Hillen split his first pro season between the Island and Bridgeport of the AHL. In his second pro season of 2009-10, Hillen was playing top pair minutes for the Islanders until he was felled by an Alex Ovechkin slapshot in late January. He finished that season with an average of 20:42 in ice time per game.
A concussion cut into his playing time in 2010-11, and his ice time dipped to 18:49 a game. When the Isles didn’t tender him a qualifying offer in the summer of 2011, Hillen signed with the defensively deep Nashville Predators. He got into 55 games with the Preds last season, averaging just 14:04 a night.
Since suffering that broken jaw from the Ovechkin slapshot, injuries and circumstances have keep Hillen from reclaiming a top pairing spot, but he believes he is capable of handling more duty than he has over the last couple of seasons.
“Do I feel like I can play like that and I have that ability?” said Hillen of his sophomore season on the Island. “I feel like I am a better player than I was before that injury. I’ve learned so much. That was my second full year playing pro hockey, I think I am a much better player. I’m positionally better and I know how to avoid certain things.
“Having said that, the situations that have happened after that haven’t allowed me to play those type of minutes and be that type of player. You have to do what is asked of you as a player, listen to coaches and play within the system. Those kinds of situations have been out of my control. That’s what that has happened, I think.”
After Hillen signed with Washington, the lockout sliced away almost half of the regular season and shortened training camp. But Hillen was able to show enough in an abbreviated camp to earn an opening night sweater. He played just 3:29 in that first game with the Caps, and has been working hard to get back into the lineup since.
In the meantime, the Caps have kept adding more and more defensemen.
“I don’t know what is going to happen,” said Hillen earlier this month of the Caps defensive depth chart. “But it’s out of my control. I just have to try to get myself ready to go and be in the best shape possible when I come back and just see what happens. I don’t know what anybody is thinking and I’m not trying to read anybody’s mind. That’s one of the things I’ve learned early in may career. You start looking at numbers and you play the numbers game, you’ll drive yourself insane. You’ve got to just worry about what’s in front of you and what you can control.”
While he sat out and watched, Hillen tried to be a student of the game and absorb as much as he could of the Adam Oates style of play.
“Anytime you watch, it’s difficult as a player,” Hillen said. “You just want to be out there. Watching something that you love to do when you’re not able to do it is one of the most frustrating things in the world. But when I do watch, I’m definitely watching the defensemen specifically to see what’s going on with the systems. I’m always in the meetings so I know I’m up to date with what’s going on. But I look to see how the [defensemen] are playing, where they’re going on the ice, and how they’re fitting into the system.
“I guess I watch differently from the average fan because I’m watching to see what we’re doing within our system. I feel like when I am ready to come back I will up to date and ready to go and I won’t need to be caught up on anything.”
When a player comes to a new team, there is a process of integration in which he is absorbed into the existing fabric of the team. I wondered how that process has gone for Hillen, given the circumstances of the lockout, the short camp, the early-season injury and his subsequent ongoing rehab.
“I’ve done my best to be in all the meetings and to try to hang out with the guys here,” Hillen told me. “I’m here every time they’re here during practice and I’ve gone on a couple of road trips. That definitely helps. I feel familiar with the guys, and it’s a great group of guys. It hasn’t really been a problem integrating and becoming part of the team.
“I just want to get back and help, play my game, help this team, jump up in the play when I can, use my legs. Whenever I get back in and get that opportunity, I’m really looking forward to it.”
That day has arrived. After two months on the sidelines, Hillen is back in against the Bruins in Boston. That’s a tough situation for any defenseman, let alone one who has played three minutes and 29 seconds of NHL hockey in the last 11 months.Posted in: Sports