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Islanders Grades: Jack Hillen, mobile tweener

Note: This is the resumption of our irregular postseason report cards, which continue until we get distracted or forget. Recent cards (and polls for your grade) have been issued for fellow RFAs Comeau, Okposo, Bailey, plus UFAs Haley, Martinek and Konopka, and the very partial seasons of Wishart and Koskinen.

The conditions keeping Jack Hillen from a higher profile are the same conditions he's faced since joining the Islanders as a college free agent when Ted Nolan was still coach: He's a great skater but is undersized; he has good offensive instincts but hardly possesses a cannon from the point; he can execute good defensive zone coverage but can be out-sized and even crushed when facing the NHL's bigger bodies. Along the boards, with his small stature, he seems to invite suddenly courageous NHLers to take a free run at a highlight reel hit.

Hillen is a restricted free agent according to CapGeek, and with the Islanders' crowd of NHL contracts on the blueline that makes the question of his re-signing a little more interesting than one might assume. As a fan of depth, training camp competition, and retaining your cheaper assets -- and considering there are three defensemen coming off hip surgery -- I'd qualify him without question: Among the six Islanders D-men to play 40 games or more, his Corsi Rel was third highest, behind only Travis Hamonic and Andrew MacDonald.

But adding Ty Wishart (RFA) Mike Mottau (hip surgery, eye injury), Mark Eaton (hip surgery), Milan Jurcina, Mark Streit (shoulder) does make for a crowd of one-ways even before you get to Mark Katic and Calvin De Haan (not to mention RFA Bruno Gervais and UFA Radek Martinek, if you want to go there).

Hillen struggled through the season's first quarter, and that may stick out in people's mind. (Incidentally, that period also apparently coincided with the last trimester before the birth of his child.) But the rest of Hillen's 2010-11 showed more of the kind of useful mid- or third-pairing Hillen can be.

How did you see his season? Issue your grade, based on your preseason expectations for Hillen, below.

GP G A P +/- PIM PPG TOI PPtoi PKtoi SOG QualComp Corsi Rel Ozone
2010-11 Jack Hillen 64 4 18 22 -5 45 0 18:49 0:47 1:55 81 4th/6 3rd/6 45.8 (2nd/6)

All of the Islanders blueliners were in nearly the same 44-45% territory in terms of offensive zone starts, so I don't think we can read much in terms of Hillen's getting the 2nd-best (or most advantageous) there. Certainly Hillen has been no offensive dynamo -- but he's not used much on the powerplay, and he had the second-most even-strength points (20) among Isles D-men, behind only Hamonic (21).

As with almost the entire blueline, all data is clouded by 1) the coaching change and 2) the injury parade that made everyone play with everyone. Here are Hillen's most frequent partners (via Dobber Hockey):


What's to Like

His rushes up the right wing boards, when successful, destabilize the opposing defense and (as we saw multiple times late in the season) create scoring chances when he can dish it across the slot to an uncovered forward.

To me that's Hillen's game, and it's how Hillen can work as a 2nd/3rd pair NHL defenseman who does more than just bang the puck up off the boards. Signs pointed to him rediscovering this plus side of his game during the second half of last season.

When Hillen's mobility is used with the right partner (such as big stay-at-home Andy Sutton in 2009-10), then each can bring out the best in each other. The sum becomes greater than its parts.

What's Not to Like

As mentioned, Hillen's size is always going to be at least some level of limitation. Whether he can steadily "Rafalski" his way around it through smarts and skating is what his career hangs on. I describe him as a "tweener" because he's not an offensive dynamo/specialist with a cannon like Marc-Andre Bergeron, but he's not prone to memorable gaffes in his own zone like ... Marc-Andre Bergeron. He provides fewer of the highs but also fewer of the lows. That might not be too bad for your second or third pairing.

For Hillen's short NHL career thus far, it's fair to say consistency and health (though neither God-given size nor gym-given training can help you avoid an Ovechkin slapper to the jaw) have been issues. This year a concussion also hobbled his first quarter, while a late-season shoulder injury helped usher in the final week of An ATO #55 A Day on the Isles blueline.

The Poem/Lyric

This is the stupid part of this regular feature that you have to either put up with or just skip over.

Turned 70 has the great Bob Dylan
From Minnesota just like Jack Hillen

But if pressed
On whom I'd rather see dressed

At the Coli
It's 38, health willin'

The Grade

As with the players linked in the intro to this post above, this is where you vote (and comment) your own grade on the player relative to your preseason expectations. We do it this way because it stirs discussion and prevents us from giving first-liners A's and checkers and grinders C's and D's.

By all means discuss how good you think a player is, in this case where Hillen fits (and if he's resigned?) and what his potential is -- but also consider what you expected out of him before the season began, and how well he measured up to those expectations.

(In the poll, you don't have to agree with the comment to vote on the number. Like most things here, the comment is just for fun.)