It would be overstating things to say that Jack Hillen has done the impossible.
The fact that the 25-year-old (he’ll turn 26 later this month) has carved out a regular role on the Nashville Predators defense is, however, unlikely given that the Predators did not draft him. In fact, he was not drafted at all.
“What he does is he finds a way to beat out guys,” coach Barry Trotz said. “His strength is in the consistency factor. He was just more consistent than a lot of the younger guys. There’s younger guys that are more talented than him in terms of maybe offensive game or there’s bigger guys. But he skates well. He can handle things. He’s stronger than you think.
“He just finds a way and he’s very consistent.”
Hillen was an unheralded free agent when he signed a free agent deal with Nashville during the offseason after 175 games with the New York Islanders over all or parts of the last four seasons. The Islanders signed him as an undrafted free agent after he completed his four-year career at Colorado College.
When he made the roster out of training camp, he was the only blue liner who had not been drafted and developed by the Predators.
In the weeks since, every move on defense other than Francis Bouillon’s activation from injured reserve, has involved draft picks. For example, Roman Josi (second round, 2008) and Ryan Ellis (first round, 2009) have been recalled recently. Teemu Laakso (third round, 2005), who opened the season in the NHL, was sent down. Jonathon Blum (first round, 2007) has been down to Milwaukee and back.
“At this point he’s beaten out the Teemu Laaksos and Jonathon Blums, Roman Josi got hurt [in training camp] and Ryan Ellis was too inconsistent,” Trotz said. “He beat those guys out. He came in on a two-way contract, which in and of itself says you’re on the edge a little bit. I give him a lot of props.”
The foundation of the defense remains 2003 draft picks Ryan Suter (first round), Shea Weber (second round) and Kevin Klein (second round).
Once Weber is activated from injured reserve, which could be as soon as Thursday’s game against Dallas (7 p.m., Bridgestone Arena) one defenseman likely will be headed back to the AHL. It’s probably going to be one of the draft picks — Blum and Ellis are the most likely candidates — because Hillen remains a fixture in the lineup.
He is not big (he is listed at 5-foot-10, 190 pounds), but he has surprising strength, a fact he credits to the weight training program to which he was exposed during his college career.
His deal with the Predators was for one year at an NHL salary of $650,000 and an AHL rate of $105,000.
“They didn’t promise anything,” Hillen said. “That’s the way I wanted it. I believe you earn everything you get. I’ve just tried to work hard and play my game.”
He was inactive twice in the first six games as coaches searched for the right combinations.
Since, he as played 33 straight. He has scored two goals with three assists.
“Because of that consistency and the ability to get things done, he beats out people all the time,” Trotz said. “This year, if you would have asked me if Jack Hillen would be on the team I probably would have said he’d be in the seventh or eighth spot, and he wouldn’t be playing every game.”