For most hockey players, competing in a Stanley Cup Playoff game would be a childhood wish come true. That wasn’t necessarily the case for Jack Hillen
“To be honest with you, playing pro hockey wasn’t my dream growing up,” the Nashville Predators defenseman says. “I’ve kind of stayed in the moment at each level. … When I was in high school I really wanted to play college hockey. And when I got to go to college, that was really it for me. Each year that I get to keep playing, I look at it as a blessing. I get to do something I like. That’s the way I look at it.”
Hillen is now in his fourth year as a pro, with 230 games of NHL regular season experience. He made his playoff debut Wednesday night in Game 1 of Nashville’s Western Conference Quarterfinal series against Detroit, promoted to the starting six when a lower-body injury prevented defenseman Hal Gill
from dressing. Hillen played in Game 2 on Friday as well.
“It’s a lot of fun,” the Minnetonka, Minn., native says of playoff action. “It’s really intense and so far—I wish we would have won [Game 2] but we’ve got to go into Detroit and get one of these games at least. I feel like it’s been a lot of fun. You’ve got to enjoy being out there and so far I’ve had a good time.”
Hillen, who was undrafted but signed by the New York Islanders in 2008, joined the Predators as a free agent on August 8, 2011. He has two goals and four assists in 55 games as a Predator, but it’s his defensive positioning that has endeared him to Nashville’s coaching staff.
“Jack is one of those … under-the-radar type guys,” head coach Barry Trotz says. “He always is very efficient. He skates really well. He’s really strong on his feet and therefore he’s got good leverage skills. He’s a good penalty killer. You know what you’re going to get with Jack. He’s a little older. He’s 26 so he’s a little more mature than some other players and he’s got some experience.”
Through two playoff games, Hillen is a solid plus-1 with one shot on net while averaging 7:53 of ice time. It’s roughly half of the time on ice he saw on average during the regular season, but teammate Ryan Suter
has been impressed with Hillen’s ability to stay focused despite the reduction in minutes.
“He’s a great team guy,” Suter says. “He works his butt off. When he gets out there he makes the right play 90 percent of the time. You just don’t want guys to make mistakes and he doesn’t. He does his job.”
Hillen has also adapted to a changing role since his time with the Islanders, where he logged more minutes and, according to Trotz, was not only matched against the “top-end speed element guys” on opposing teams but was looked upon to jump into the play on the offensive end.
“He’s a guy that has sort of found a balance with us,” Trotz says. “His role hasn’t been really on the offensive side. It’s been more on the defensive side for us. He can contribute offensively [but] it’s more his ability to have some escapability and also transport the puck up the ice a little bit. His legs do a lot of the work for him.”
Indeed, everyone who talks about Hillen seems to mention his skating ability. He weighs in a bit on the smaller side at 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds, and realized years ago that his skating ability would be key to his hockey longevity. It wasn’t something he was born with, though.
“I took skating lessons growing up,” Hillen says. “Same guy from 8 years old the whole way through college. … I’ve really tried to work on that. As I’ve gotten older I’ve realized that I have to be a good skater in order to play at this level. Otherwise there’s really not room for 5-foot-10 defensemen if you can’t skate well. So I’ve kind of had to work on that and make sure that that stays top notch in order to compete at this level.”
As for his 5-foot-10 frame, the graduate of Colorado College (with a degree in economics) hasn’t allowed critics to derail him. He’s confident and comfortable with his size and abilities.
“You learn how to manage out there,” he says. “I’m stronger than people give me credit for, I’m sure. I don’t get pushed around out there because I use my leverage well. So if someone’s bigger than me I can get under them and move them around that way. I’ve never felt like it’s been a disadvantage. I’ve tried to use it as an advantage out there.”