Jack Hillen has 28 career NHL points. Brian Rafalski has never had fewer than 32 points (his rookie year total) in an NHL season. So despite their similar size, I have no illusions there.
Then again, Rafalski finished college and got to refine his craft in Sweden and Finland; he was a victim of the NHL's pre-lockout bias against 5'10" defenders. Beyond the spoils of Nordic life, that enabled him to arrive in the NHL as a 26-year-old well-groomed blueliner, with the added bonus of joining a Cup-caliber team. Yada yada yada, today he's multi-millionaire who gets to collect points playing next to Nicklas Lidstrom.
Hillen, as a post-lockout guy, suffered no such bias and jumped right from college into the NHL, with a 33-game AHL internship. His NHL baptism was on a 30th-place team, where his frequent partners in 08-09 were Thomas Pock and Bruno Gervais, and in 09-10 were Andy Sutton and Brendan Witt. His defensive game is still evolving.
Most importantly, Hillen skates very well, passes well, sees the ice with creativity, and has steadily improved at absorbing, softening, or outright avoiding hits. Being a good-skating defenseman provides a man some time and space to make smart decisions with the puck -- if he possesses the intelligence and temperament to use it. Hillen appears to.
There is some cause for hope that Hillen can exhibit the same kind of growth through his mid- to late-20s that Rafalski did, particularly if he's able to avoid the (league-leading) holding/defensive clutching penalties that hindered him in the first half of 2009-10. Hillen missed several weeks with a broken jaw -- thanks to an Alex Ovechkin shot to the face -- and was a step slow when he first returned from that injury, so his record even for this past "full" season is still uncertain. We simply have to wait and see. But I like what I see so far.
About those penalties: Hillen took 22 minors this year, but 18 of them happened in his first 42 games -- only 4 in the remaining 27. I think he had a little bit of bad luck in the first quarter, but he also made adjustments to avoid the holding calls that got him in the first half of the season.
#38 / Defenseman / New York Islanders
Jan 24, 1986
$525k next season, then RFA
6.6* (3.3 on 5-pt. scale)
Just keep improving, and we're good.
So even if Hillen merely maintains his current form, he was a great find by Garth Snow's staff. He slots into a second pairing well -- he and Andy Sutton faced the toughest competition last year -- and his offensive instincts at 5-on-5 are a boon to the Islanders' transition game. As far as contributing to wins (GVT) and driving puck possession (Corsi relative to Quality of Competition), Hillen was second only to Mark Streit among Isles defensemen last season.
It's an open question whether he can be an effective PP guy -- and whether he'll get that opportunity, since last season Doug Weight, Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen usually got the call opposite Mark Streit.
|2009-10 - Jack Hillen||69||3||18||21||-5||44||1||20:41||1:46||2:14||.635||3.8|
Hillen got plenty of PK time last season -- which is fine in theory, he was one of their better defensemen -- but I'd rather see him get more creative time on the PP and less time trying to move bigger bodies or block shots on the PK. It's by definition a small sample, but Hillen's rate of goals allowed per PK ice time was higher than everyone but Brendan Witt among Isles D-men who played at least 30 games. However, that might be attributed to the fact he and regular partner Andy Sutton were the first-choice D-men, so they got the tough assignments.
Regardless, hopefully Andrew MacDonald's growth and one or two additions this summer will allow a different deployment according to player strengths. If Hillen's strength is igniting offense, I'd prefer more time be carved for him in that position.
Beyond that, though: We've seen roughly a season and a half of Hillen, and much of that full season was with Sutton as his partner. It became an effective partnership, all in all, which produced one of Sutton's best seasons. So who helped whom more? Barring Sutton doing a Tkachuk, we're about to find out.
Chicken or egg? Jack Hillen and Sutton
Who carried the mail? Who stole the mutton?
Now they're apart
So next year we'll see
Who was more important?
What will Hillen be?
You know how to do these. Think about what you expected of Hillen going into the season, then ask yourself how well he measured up to that. If you think he suffered from pairing with Witt earlier on, maybe you take that into account; if you expected more offense, maybe you take that into account. Maybe you also consider his return from the broken jaw and damaged teeth -- an injury with a hardly routine recovery, even if it makes for easy hockey lore. That's why I throw this open: To see what everyone thought, and then get a gander at where the average lies.
(For the record, I won't go into next season expecting he becomes some kind of Rafalski. But that style of game is something a player of Hillen's stature and intelligence should shoot for, and the jury is still out on how good he can be.)