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Grading the Islanders: Jack Hillen (and his contract situation)

Much of next week I'll be traveling (read: sipping cocktails on a beach or, alternatively, having my carcass fished out of the surf). But I'll still be checking in on news and have several posts like this scheduled. Y'all come back now.

The draft's done, the free agency period has slowed down, and mini-camp is over. It's time to get back to grading the performances of 2008-09. But first, a look at the Islanders report cards so far. Of those who have already received grades via your vote, here's how the class stacks up:

This is based on reader votes, on a five-point scale, where 3 = met preseason expectations, 5 = out of the park, and 1 = failure so bad it's grounds for stoning.

Danis 3.84 B-
Gervais 3.44 C+
Bailey 3.32 C+
Callahan 3.27 C
Bergenheim 3.14 C
Fritz 3.13 C
Comeau 2.90 C-
Hilbert 2.90 C-

After the jump (click the link below the poll if you're on the front page), a progress report on Jack Hillen, for consideration when issuing your grade.

Jack Hillen

#38 / Defenseman / New York Islanders



Jan 24, 1986


RFA who declined qualifying offer

Project; if he's the next Campoli, then what happens to Chris...?

Jack Hillen GP G A P +/- PIM PPG TOI Hits SOG PCT
2008-09 - NHL Islanders 40 1 5 6 -9 16 0 15:12 28 47 2.1
2008-09 - AHL Bridgeport 33 4 17 21 0 31 2 - - 47 8.5

Well this is timely. Hillen was next up in alphabetical order among our report cards, but the matter of him declining his qualifying offer gives us a nice news hook.

First, a quick word about qualifying offers: They are standard procedures (well, unless you're in the Chicago Blackhawks front office), prescribed by the CBA to allow team's to retain a young player's rights while guaranteeing that player a nominal raise. If the player is marginal or if his development is uncertain, it's often just a rubber stamp: The player wants another shot and the team thinks he's worth the chance. If the player is on the rise and deserves more than the 5-10% raise mandated for the Q.O. (Note: salaries at $1 million-plus to not require a raise in the Q.O.), then the club's offer is just a way of retaining rights and extending the negotiating window. (Expect this with John Tavares in 2012.)

We don't know the circumstances for the Hillen negotiations, but reasonable speculation figures it's around term and/or one-way or two-way offers. (As Mike theorizes at Islesblogger, it could also be agents seeking to leverage the Islanders' need to hit the cap floor into a higher payday for their clients.) Here's the thing: If you're a borderline player who fears fate could put you in the AHL, you're willing to take quite the pay cut in order to get a one-way deal: Even the NHL minimum is highly preferable to an AHL salary.

And that is where Hillen's (and Blake Comeau's) RFA negotiations could be really interesting. I have failry high hopes (NHL regular) for both of them, but in theory, the Islanders rebuild should be creating a cupboard of prospects with higher ceillings than Hillen or even Comeau. Which means that, as just-arriving prospects on a last-place club last year, they'll need to continue progress on their development curve or else they will become spare parts in a few years, lapped by other picks. What happens to NHL spare parts? They shuttle up and down to the AHL.

Edit: There is one other motive to seek a one-way deal, aside from the fear of falling down the depth chart and into the AHL: The legit fear that a cost-conscious team will make minor roster decisions based on who is cheaper to send to the minors. A two-way contract is an invitation to be the first sent down when the roster gets crowded with healthy (ha) bodies. With six NHL contracts already on the Islanders blueline, Hillen has reason to worry about that possibility.

Now on to the grade...

Random Fact: Saying Hillen has "two" NHL seasons is a bit of a stretch, considering his first "NHL season" was all of two games against the Rangers at the end of his Colorado College season.

"This is our Concern, Dude" Fact: Hillen is not a terribly physical defenseman, which means he needs to a) bring the offense or b) bring brilliant defensive coverage. He started to do that in Bridgeport and he showed flashes with the big club, but time will tell.

The Story: The season actually broke perfectly for Hillen: a crowded NHL blueline meant he could get much-needed seasoning in Bridgeport, then allowed him to play half a season in the NHL as the traditional plague of Islanders injuries commenced. The Chris Campoli trade opened up room for "the next Chris Campoli," and Hillen finished the year with an average of 1:13 TOI per game on the power play.

The Good: After an uneven start to the year, Hillen earned rave reviews at Bridgeport (where he produced points at a high rate) before impressing management as he eased in at the NHL level. By all accounts, he's very "coachable" and eager to learn.

The Bad: Mark Streit is the man on the Islanders powerplay point for years to come, so Hillen will have to either prove the perfect complement or prove a good QB on the second unit, which always entails much less ice time. While Hillen has made strides as an NHL defensemen, it's unclear whether he'll grab that role.

The Poem

The soft-spoken collegiate Jack Hillen
Began his career as an injury fill-in
With a name like Jack
He ought take no flak
And grab a full-time gig, God willin'

The Grade: I know what I thought of Hillen going into this season, after his two-game debut the year before. Time to hear what you think. Leave your grade in the poll, judging him relative to your preseason expectations (in this case, feel free to include his AHL play if you see fit) and state your case or issue further briefs in comments. One thing you might consider: What kind of contract (salary, term, one/two-way) does he deserve? His last contract was $875k plus $500k in potential bonuses.