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Jack Hillen: The 'other' healthy scratch

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<em>Jack Hillen: Still waitin'...</em>
Jack Hillen: Still waitin'...

There's been head-scratching about Jeff Tambellini receiving so much time during preseason -- 5 GP, 0 goals, 4 assists -- only to be yanked in favor of Rob Schremp after a decent performance opening night. Not that Schremp isn't worth a good, long look, but that Tambellini, after mild signs of progress, is so quickly put back to square one.

Meanwhile, there is a guy who outscored Tambellini in preseason -- 5 GP, 1 goal, 3 assists -- who has yet to see the ice in the Islanders' first four games. His name is Jack Hillen, and if he has any chance of being the "next poor man's Chris Campoli," he has time -- but will need plenty more reps -- to get there.

Perhaps the Islanders are counting on Hillen getting into the lineup through defensive injuries -- every team should count on those, but especially the Islanders. You half expect a factory sign in the locker room: "It has been [#] games since our last blueline injury."

The first thing to understand when considering the Islanders blueline is that if Garth Snow didn't think the existing group was adequate enough for a transition year, he'd have brought someone else in over the summer. I strongly disagree with that assessment (I try to be even-keel and measure two sides to every question, but on this issue I'm entrenched), but I need to accept that this existing group isn't changing until contracts expire and/or desperate trading partners bite.

And if the Isles are committed to trying to make this group work, for now, the low man on the totem pole will remain Hillen, the still-developing youngster. While trying to squeak by, the Isles may be hoping to keep the veterans happy and avoid an internal squabble like what emerged last winter.

But if this unlikely run of health keeps up -- hell, if this winless streak keeps up -- does it not beg for Hillen to be given a shot? I'm fine with trying to win first. I'm fine with making a guy earn his way. But Hillen spent half of last year in Bridgeport to develop his game; I can't believe being a healthy scratch in the NHL continues that development.

And then there is the matter that Hillen might actually give the Isles a better chance to win. He's undersized, true -- and thus he fits in with too many Islanders defensemen. But Andy Sutton, for example, doesn't really play to his size. Freddy Meyer practically hits more and has been fine so far, but he's also good at staying consistent even when he's in and out of the lineup.

Obviously I don't have a grand solution. The Islanders blueline is what it is, pretty much with or without Hillen. But they at least have hope for Hillen, whereas Sutton is surely gone next year and Meyer likely as well. In the big picture, if it's otherwise six of one, half a dozen of the other, isn't it time to get Hillen working toward his potential as one of those six?

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The Islanders practiced again this morning; tomorrow will be just a morning skate in Buffalo. No doubt last night's drama with the Lighthouse is still fresh, so Katie Strang's live chat at 2 p.m. EDT should be a lively one. Here is Wang's full statement, in which he pledges not to discuss anymore private meetings with the media.

In the meantime, Strang has more from Doug Weight about playing wing (he says it's the first time since he was 8, but isn't that how Carolina used him at times during their Cup run?), as well as from Rob Schremp about being much more comfortable moving back to center.

So many off days this early in the season -- we're bound to be going over our Tambellini and Schremp (and Hillen!) topics over and over. That's cool; all you commenters have been great and respectful of each other amid disagreement, which I really appreciate. All I ever wanted of this site was a place where people feel comfortable talking hockey and shooting views back and forth like buddies in a bar.

None of these early-season topics are make-or-break territory, but it's fun to toss them around in the absence of games -- the ultimate source of evidence -- actually being played. Thankfully, our available evidence will grow by 50 percent by the time this weekend is over. It's about time.