If there is one thing you can say about the Washington Capitals’ acquisition of defenseman Jack Hillen, it’s that the five season NHL veteran knows how to get his body infront of opposing forward’s shots. Signed to a one year $650,000 deal, that’s cheaper than the League’s average backup goalie.
The latter example was Hillen thwarting an Alexander Ovechkin slap shot from the slot, Ovechkin’s shot inadvertantly catching the New York Islanders defenseman across the chin. The impact broke Hillen’s jaw and rearranged several teeth, the tough defender having to sit out for close to two months of regular season play.
Tuesday’s signing by General Manager George McPhee is his second of the Free Agent Frenzy (or lack thereof) that kicked off on July 1st. McPhee contracted Joey Crabb to a one year deal Monday and made a second (perhaps smaller) splash by signing his former Colorado College teammate Hillen to a one year one way deal.
Hillen is brought in to further the depth of the Capitals defense in 2012-2013, currently slotted to help fill the organization’s fifth through eighth slots on the blue line. Other players in that mix are Capitals mainstays John Erskine and Jeff Schultz, along with up and coming blue chip prospect Dmitry Orlov. As McPhee knows only six defenseman dress for each contest, but the healthy competition between the bottom four blue liners should produce a healthy push for the final two slots.
In Nashville, TN last year as a Predators defenseman Hillen notched six points (2G 4A) in limited appearances (55GP) but helped keep things tidy in his own end for goaltender Pekka Rinne. Hillen’s best offensive season was the 2010-2011 campaign as an Islander, the defensive defenseman putting up twenty two points (4G 18A) in sixty four games. Since leaving the Islanders organization Hillen has praised Nashville’s defenseman Ryan Suter, someone who served as a model to mold his own game after heading into his most productive NHL years. From Capitals beat reporter Stephen Whyno’s talks with the newly signed free agent…
Whyno’s “No pressure.” addendum is only there to temper wild expectations that Hillen could provide the same organizational lift that the soon to be paid free agent Suter has had with the Predators. Hillen was not cast in the same mold as Suter, but has scultped his own game’s imperfections around what he was able to soak up sitting next to Suter (and Shea Weber) in Nashville. Listed at 5’10” and 190lbs Hillen cannot demand the same respect that Suter and Weber command from forechecking forwards, but Hillen cautions against underestimating him on the ice.
Tuesday’s signing by McPhee will benefit the Capitals most during the regular season’s long grind, when players (defenseman especially) are knocked out of action by an injury for a month or two at a time. Currently penciled in to rotate in and out of the Capitals’ lineup as part of a third defensive pairing Hillen will be given the chance to earn greater ice time ahead of both Erskine and Schultz. McPhee and his advisors understand the greater upside to the young Orlov’s game and will likely look to feed him greater minutes during his first full NHL season. When called upon by Head Coach Adam Oates look for Hillen to jump to the task and hustle from beginning to end, but don’t allow hopes to get in the way of the reality of Hillen’s addition; a strong organizational move to secure defensive depth at a great price point.