In a busy day of roster movement and transactions, the Caps also announced the re-signing of defenseman Jack Hillen to a two-year contract extension. The one-way pact will pay Hillen $700,000 for each of the next two seasons. That’s a raise of $100,000 over the one-year contract he signed with Washington as an unrestricted free agent last July.
“They approached me about it and I wanted to get it done so I could just relax and play and have it off my mind,” says Hillen. “I’m really excited to be here and I just really wanted to put my mind at ease, so to speak. It’s really nice to be wanted. I’m really happy about it.”
After signing with Washington last summer, Hillen was in the top six for the team’s opener in Tampa on Jan. 19. But he suffered an upper body injury on a bodycheck from the Lightning’s Vincent Lecavalier and was sidelined for the better part of two months.
Hillen returned to the lineup on March 16 in Boston and he has been there ever since. His average of 18:22 per game in ice time this season ranks fifth among Capitals defensemen. He picked up his first point of the season on Sunday in Philly, collecting an assist on Nicklas Backstrom’s first-period goal.
A top-pairing defenseman for the 2009-10 New York Islanders, Hillen’s career took a turn when he suffered a broken jaw in taking an Alexander Ovechkin slapshot to the face in a Jan. 26, 2010 game at Nassau Coliseum. Prior to that night, he had a stretch of 19 straight games playing more than 20 minutes.
Playing in just his second pro season in 2009-10, Hillen averaged 20:42 a night for the Islanders. His ice dipped to 18:49 with New York the following season and he averaged 14:04 a night in 55 games as a depth defenseman with the Nashville Predators last season.
“I felt like I was the same player and that I could play those minutes,” says Hillen. “I think I’ve shown that. I’ve just got to keep improving and keep working. You asked me then about the [deep] defensive depth chart and how many [defensemen] we have and I told you there is nothing I can do except to be in the best shape possible when I come back and hopefully something will happen. That’s what happened. When stuff like that happens, you’ve just got to stay positive and control what you can control.”
Hillen enjoys playing in coach Adam Oates system with the caps, and he has logged 20 or more minutes in four of the nine games in which he has played since returning from injury, including three of the last four.
“I like it,” says Hillen. “It lets me skate. I’m getting up in the play but I’m not doing anything stupid where I’m causing odd-man rushes [against]. I’m just trying really more than anything to get up in the play so I can close my gap and play good defense. If it leads to some offense, then that’s a bonus.
“I like the system, I like the d-zone. I’m still getting a little used to some of the neutral zone and other things like that but really I feel like I like it and it’s coming along.”
Hillen spent each of the last two summers on the open market, but he won’t have those worries in the two summers ahead.
“That’s one of the things I was thinking,” he says. “The last couple of summers have been very stressful. This way, you know you’re wanted and you can get in and you can play. It’s nice to be wanted as a player and it feels good so I’m really happy about it.”