If you ever pay attention to the different players on the ice, you will notice that each skater has their own unique skating style. New York Islanders defenseman Jack Hillen is no exception to that rule. With smooth, long strides, he’s a very exciting player to watch out on the ice because he can be very explosive off the start, catching unknowing forwards off guard.
“My skating is definitely my strong suit. I know it,” Hillen said. “It gets me in position to make body checks, make passes and break the puck out. I think as a 5’10” player, you have to be able to do that… I need to play a positional game and if I weren’t able to skate, I wouldn’t be in the NHL right now. I wouldn’t be able to play at this level.”
Islanders Head Coach Scott Gordon agreed, saying, “At Jack’s size you can’t play at this level unless you can skate. There aren’t too many guys at his size that don’t skate well.” He added, “What we get from Jack is solid defense and positional play and the ability to get up into the play and make a good first pass and that’s an important part of it.”
But it isn’t an accident that Hillen’s skating is one of his strong suits out on the ice. He’s been practicing and fine tuning his skills with the same two coaches for the past 15 years. “They’re just top notch skating coaches,” Hillen said about his skating coaches Barry and Jodie Karn. “They basically formed my stride. It’s not something that just happened by accident. I put a lot of work into it ever since I started skating.”
Hillen’s skating skills helped him make an extremely quick transition to the National Hockey League. After his senior year with Colorado College, Hillen signed with the Islanders as a free agent on April 1, 2008 where he played in two games, recording one assist for a plus one ranking. The defenseman then split the 2008-09 season between the Islanders and Bridgeport, where he recorded a combined NHL/AHL total of five goals and 18 assists for 23 points.
“Jack’s a very cerebral player,” Coach Gordon said. “He’s a quick learner. He thinks the game well and I think that how far he came in such a short time is pretty impressive.”
Getting that far that fast is impressive for any player, but being an undrafted defenseman who made it to the NHL full time in less than two years, makes his first full season at the NHL level more notable. The defenseman played in 69 games during the 2009-10 season, notching three goals (one on the power play) and 18 assists for 21 points.
But midseason Hillen took a slap-shot to the chin from Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals, shattering his jaw. After that January 26 injury, Hillen missed the next nine games and when he came back, he needed to wear a full face shield for added protection.
“Jack was playing really well for us right up until he got hurt,” said Coach Gordon. “That was a big setback for him to have a full face shield because at times he couldn’t see the puck.”
Even though the defenseman had a rough first year due to the injury, Coach Gordon is still impressed with his play. “That whole first half of the year last year he and Sutts (Andy Sutton) were a good pair for us. He did a great job and they compliment each other well,” Coach Gordon said.
This season, Hillen is looking to improve his game even more, so he spent a lot of time in the gym working with his trainer this off season.
“I trained at the same place I’ve been training at since I was a freshman in college, had the same trainer and everything,” Hillen said. “Basically Jesse (Demers, the Islanders Strength and Conditioning Coach) gives us the workout and I go with my trainer one-on-one. We get a high-intensity workout in with low rest to keep the heart-rate up. I felt like I came in (to camp) in great shape, probably the best shape I’ve ever been to camp in, so I’m really excited about that.”
Hillen has looked like he was at top of his game these first few days of Training Camp, so hopefully he will find a great match in his new D partner this season to help excel his game even further.