When the Nashville Predators signed defenseman Jack Hillen
as a free agent in August, the hope was that he could fill a void. There was no timetable for the return of Francis Bouillon
- who was battling concussion symptoms - and another experienced blueliner was needed.
In his short time with the Predators, Hillen is not only fitting that role, he’s providing much more.
Hillen, 25, is coming off his best game of the young season, is helping teammates with tips on Eastern Conference opponents, and with Bouillon’s recent return to game action, Hillen’s addition continues to stabilize what was an already superb defense.
“I feel like I’m getting better every game and gaining more confidence every game,” said Hillen, who played 175 games with the New York Islanders in the last four seasons. “I think it’s showing in my play, and I think the coaches’ confidence in me is growing also, so that helps. I’m just doing things I know I’m capable of doing. I’m not playing outside of myself. I just need to keep it going.”
Hillen has been in a playing-time battle Teemu Laakso
, but he is starting to solidify a spot in the lineup. Predators coach Barry Trotz recently said Laakso hasn’t reached the level of play the staff has expected, which may lead to more opportunities for Hillen to lock down the spot.
Hillen has an assist in two of his last three games, and his most recent one showed his skill and experience. It came at 11:20 of the second period against Tampa Bay on Thursday, with Nick Spaling
scoring the goal to give Nashville a 4-2 lead. The play began with fellow defenseman Jonathon Blum
moving the puck to Hillen.
“Blummer made a nice play to get it over to me because (Tampa Bay) is pretty aggressive on one side,” Hillen said. “When the guy came out, he kind of over-pursued a little bit. So I tried to slow up moving that one way to go against the grain. I was just trying to get it over to that area for (Spaling), and he made a nice hustle play on it.”
Hillen assisted his teammates even before they hit the ice against Tampa Bay. Playing in the Eastern Conference since 2007-08, he has insight into their players and tendencies.
“When we play an Eastern Conference team, a lot of players on our team will ask me about a certain player, what’s his game,” Hillen said. “And I ask them about Western Conference teams. The schedule is so stacked, sometimes you only see a Western Conference team one time if you’re in the East, and vice versa. It helps. I knew Tampa’s style and a lot of their players. It was the same when we played New Jersey. I knew they liked to do certain things with their sticks.”
While those tips are beneficial to his teammates, Hillen’s coach finds his benefits in being smart and seasoned.
“With Jack, the No. 1 thing is he has a little bit of experience,” Trotz said. “He’s starting to feel comfortable. The more you’ve been in the league, the more you see things. He hasn’t played on this side, in the West, and I think the West is a little bit different than listening to the coaches in the East. The biggest thing is first-pass recognition and defending position. He’s shown some experience there.”
Hillen, like most of Nashville’s defensemen, is also accustomed to being paired with different players, which has included Bouillon and Blum.
“Everyone here is so solid and plays so well,” Hillen said. “We know what we’re doing out there. We’re professionals.”Injury update:
Trotz said Sergei Kostitsyn
is probable for Saturday. Kostitsyn went into the boards awkwardly with 7:59 to go in the second against the Lightning and did not return. He took a maintenance day on Friday and did not practice.
“It’s more of a muscle strain than anything,” Trotz said. “I’m hoping he’ll be able to play. He’s pretty tough. He usually comes back pretty quickly. The trainers are working on him.”
Forward Martin Erat
(upper body) practiced with the team on Tuesday.
“Marty feels good,” Trotz said. “I think he will probably be in.”
Forward Jordin Tootoo
, who appeared banged up following a hit against Tampa Bay, practiced and did not appear to have any lingering issues.