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Unsung Hillen settling in on Predators' blue line

by John Manasso
NASHVILLE -- With its top farm team located in Milwaukee and so many players with Wisconsin ties, the Nashville Predators sometimes feel like Wisconsin South.

Defenseman Ryan Suter is from Madison and went to the University of Wisconsin, which is also true of rookie Craig Smith, who leads all Predators forwards in points. Blake Geoffrion, recently sent back to the AHL, won the Hobey Baker Award with the Badgers.

Yet another addition to the Predators this season can be found, like Suter, sporting a Green Bay Packers cap sometimes after practice: defenseman Jack Hillen.

Given that Hillen is from Minnesota -- and that the NFL's Vikings and the Packers border on blood rivals -- it would be analogous to a hockey player raised in Massachusetts wearing a Yankees' cap.


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As it happens, Hillen's father is a Green Bay native and Hillen was raised there in his early years. Hillen tried to explain just how ingrained the Packers are in the small city of 100,000. His father grew up and played golf with the son of Bart Starr, the legendary Packers quarterback. Hillen's family had season tickets and he grew up going to games at Lambeau Field.

"It's tough to explain to people," Hillen said. "It's a different type of atmosphere in that city."

As for growing up as a Packers fan in Minnesota, where his mother is from, Hillen said: "A lot of good-natured ribbing. The thing is, the Vikings haven't won any Super Bowls. The Packers have four Super Bowls and 13 NFL championships."

While it might be hard to explain to outsiders how firmly entrenched in the community the Packers are in Green Bay, it also is hard to understand why the New York Islanders chose not to make a qualifying offer to Hillen, allowing him to depart via free agency and sign with Nashville on Aug. 8. Since arriving this season, Hillen quickly earned coach Barry Trotz's trust and has become a mainstay on Nashville's back line.

With top-four regulars Shea Weber and Kevin Klein having missed time recently with a concussion and the flu, respectively, the Predators' depth on defense has been tested and Hillen is one of those players they have come to rely upon.

The Predators brought in Hillen on a two-way contract and threw him into a group of young defensemen during training camp for the Nos. 5, 6, and 7 spots on the roster, as Francis Bouillon began the season with a concussion. Trotz said when the Predators signed Hillen, all he knew about him was his name.

"He just got here and he beat everybody out," Trotz said. "Plain and simple."

While Hillen has currently settled in firmly to the No. 6 role, at times he has jumped up in the pecking order. He has played with at least five different partners and represents something of a survivor. Teemu Laakso and Mattias Eckholm made the team to start the season, but now both find themselves in the minors.

Rookie Jonathon Blum, a former first-round pick who played well during the stretch drive last season and into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, has struggled at times and been a healthy scratch, even finding himself sent down to the minors for a short stint. Roman Josi, now a regular, was not called up until almost eight weeks into the season.

Despite his status as the sixth defenseman, the 5-foot-10, 190-pound Hillen has played almost 22 minutes in a couple of games. He currently is minus-1, fourth among Preds' defensemen currently on the roster. (Only Suter and Weber, two of the League's best at their position, are pluses).

At 25 and in his fifth NHL season, Hillen also represents something of a grizzled veteran on a young team. Ryan Ellis is 19, Josi 21 and Blum 22.

"His game's all about skating and staying in front of you," Trotz said. "He's not a big, bruising defenseman, but he doesn't shy away. He's got some escapability because he can get back to pucks, and he can jump up in the play a little bit as well. But he's pretty effective by just staying in front of you.

"That's his game and he's using his assets that way."

Hillen was asked to compare expectations in Nashville, with a team that has made the playoffs six of the last seven seasons and reached the second round last spring, to those with the Islanders, who have qualified for the postseason only once and won just a single playoff game since the work stoppage.

"The Predators, I'm coming into an organization that has been winning, getting to the playoffs and I think that's one of the biggest differences is you come here and it just feels like everyone's expecting to get to the playoffs and to be that team," he said. "I don't want to say anything bad about the Islanders. I mean, that's a tough question. I have a lot of respect for everyone over there, for (general manager) Garth Snow and (coach) Jack Capuano.

"I think they're doing a good job and they're turning that franchise around. I know they have a tough job, so I think it's just different situations where the Islanders haven't been there recently, but this team has."

While Hillen seems to have found a home for now in Nashville, there's no telling where his career might take him -- life as a sixth defenseman is not always a secure one, and he's on a one-year contract that pays him the modest-by-NHL-standards sum of $650,000.

That said, eventually he will have something to fall back. The son of a doctor and successful businessman -- his family moved from Green Bay to Minnesota in part because his father traveled the world so much for work, including trips to the Middle East, for a company that specialized in bar code scanners -- Hillen has a degree in economics from Colorado College. During his undergraduate days, he did an internship with a financial planning firm.

"I don't know if it's what I want to do when I'm done, but I definitely want to take a look at it," Hillen said. "It's interesting stuff, very interesting."

He said education is important in his family. Perhaps with a nice nest egg to fall back on, he'll also have a second successful career.
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