When defenseman Jack Hillen signed with the Washington Capitals as a free agent during the summer of 2012, Capitals fans were expecting a player described by The Hockey News as a "mobile depth defenseman" who "possesses good offensive upside. Moves the puck quickly out of the defensive zone and is also extremely mobile. Limits his mistakes for the most part."
Up to that point, the native of Minnesota had played five NHL seasons, the first four with the New York Islanders and the fifth with the Nashville Predators. In that time, Hillen amassed 10 goals and 46 assists in 230 games played, to go with a minus-12 rating and 129 penalty minutes.
Furthermore, Hillen was able to stay in the lineup on a consistent basis, once he became a regular in the NHL. Of the 246 games played from 2009-2012, Hillen dressed for 188, or 76.4 percent. Neither he nor the Capitals thought that from 2012-2014, Hillen would play in only 36 of a possible 121 games, or 29.8 percent.
But that is exactly what happened.
On opening night of the 2012-13 season—during Hillen's first regular season game with Washington—he suffered a shoulder injury after a devastating hit by Vincent Lecavalier, then of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Hillen missed two months and eventually played in 23 games for Washington, just under half of the shortened season.
Then, in the second game of the 2013-14 season, Hillen again suffered a major injury.
On Oct. 3 against the Calgary Flames, Hillen was hit awkwardly by Lance Bouma along the boards, just eight minutes into the first period. Hillen explained to Katie Carrera of The Washington Post what was going through his head at the moment of impact:
...as soon as I got hit, I felt something pop and I just didn’t know what it was. And when he told me it was my knee, I never heard of someone breaking their knee. Mentally, it was tough. I’m still mentally a little frustrated and I’m just starting now to turn a corner and feel a little bit better with it, and it’s still going to be a while.
Perhaps as a sign that Caps fans were becoming used to seeing Hillen knocked out of the lineup for long stretches, this particular incident became more famous for provoking the first fight in Tom Wilson's career as the Capitals' new enforcer. Wilson engaged Bouma immediately after seeing what he did to Hillen.
But as Wilson and the other Capitals players moved on from that incident and continued playing, Hillen was left alone to deal with another injury. He also had to deal with the self-doubt that began to set in, as he told Katie Carrera on Dec. 3:
What can you do? I have had a broken jaw, broken ribs and broken knee. I drank lots of milk as a kid, I swear. What can you do about it? I mean they’re freak injuries. Maybe I need a sacrifice a live chicken or something. I’ve got to try to find a way to stay positive. And that’s been the biggest challenge.
Despite these setbacks, Hillen has persevered to become a major part of the Washington Capitals, each time he's returned to the lineup.
Last season, Hillen scored three goals and had six assists to go with a plus-nine rating and 14 penalty minutes. All three of Hillen's goals and eight of his nine points came during the last 10 games of the regular season schedule, when the Capitals were making their annual mad dash to the playoffs.
Washington finished 8-1-1 in that stretch, with a large contribution from Hillen. One of Hillen's three goals in that span was a game-winner, and he recorded at least one point in five of the Capitals' eight wins.
This season, Hillen has not had the same offensive production. He has no goals and one assist in 13 games, with a minus-four rating and four penalty minutes.
But that may soon change.
You see, Hillen takes a little time to warm up—or at least he did last season. In 2012-13, Hillen's first assist did not come until his ninth game back after returning to the lineup, and his first goal did not come until his 14th game back.
He sure did heat up in a hurry, though. Case in point: That first goal he scored on the season was also the first of three he scored in a four-game span.
In case you're wondering, March 25 marked Hillen's 11th game back in the lineup. Hopefully, his goal-scoring production mirrors that of last season.
In the meantime, Hillen has proven his worth in other ways. Look no further than Hillen's situational ice time for proof that his value to the Capitals has increased over time, despite playing relatively few games:
|Even-Strength Time-On-Ice Per Game||16:30||4th||16:34||7th|
|Short-Handed Time-On-Ice Per Game||0:53||10th||1:26||6th|
|Power-Pay Time-On-Ice Per Game||0:12||6th||0:15||5th|
|Total Time-On-Ice Per Game||17:36||5th||18:16||6th|
|Time-On-Ice Per Shift||52.0||6th||49.0||12th|
|Shifts Per Game||20.3||5th||22.5||4th|
Hillen will probably never significantly increase his power-play time-on-ice per game. That's because the Capitals defensemen who rank first and second in that category—John Carlson and Mike Green—average 3:04 and 2:49, respectively, and are the only two blue liners on the team who average more than 0:21 per game on the man advantage.
But Hillen still logs important minutes. According to LeftWingLock.com, Hillen has been one half of the second-most frequent even-strength defensive pairing during the most recent 10 games, as he and Mike Green have been paired together 23.53 percent of the time over that period.
Unfortunately, now the Caps may be forced to discover just how important Hillen is to their team.
On March 25, during overtime of a wild game at Verizon Center against the Los Angeles Kings, Hillen collided violently with Alex Ovechkin in the neutral zone, while the Capitals were attempting to enter the Kings' end. Hillen's head and neck appeared to take the brunt of the collision, and Russian Machine Never Breaks reported that "Hillen laid motionless on the ice, apparently knocked out."
CSN Washington tweeted the aftermath:
Chuck Gormley of CSN Washington provided an update, shortly after the game ended:
Jack Hillen being evaluated after collision with Alex Ovechkin. #CapitalsTalk— Chuck Gormley (@ChuckGormleyCSN) March 26, 2014
As of the completion of this column, the only update regarding the health and well-being of Jack Hillen was provided by a Canadian fantasy hockey website, which stated via Twitter that Hillen sustained an "upper body" injury, and his status is "day-to-day."
Capitals players and fans alike should wish him good health followed by a speedy recovery, so as to prevent another long stint on the IR. If anyone were unsure as to how much Hillen really means to the Capitals, another prolonged absence from the lineup would remove all doubt.
Note: All statistics updated through March 25 courtesy of NHL.com unless noted otherwise.