In early August, all of Preds Nation was focused on the Shea Weber arbitration hearing and what it all meant for the Predators and the captain’s future in Nashville.
It was almost an afterthought on August 8 when the Predators announced that they had signed Jack Hillen to a one-year, two-way contract that would pay him $650,000 at the NHL level and $105,000 should he end up in Milwaukee.
Hillen is one of a growing number of players who decided to go the NCAA route to find his way to the pro ranks. After a year in the USHL at Tri-City, he went to Colorado College, where he played four years and was named the WCHA Defensive Player of the Year as a senior in 2008.
“I wouldn’t give up my four years there for anything,” Hillen said with a smile.”I had great coaching and they really helped me get stronger. It’s not for everybody.”
Hillen is shorter than your prototypical NHL blueliner at 5-foot-10, but he packs a lot of muscle in his 190-pound frame. It’s not by chance that he is stout for his stature. “[In college] you play fewer games but you practice and emphasize getting your body stronger and building your body in the weight room.
“It really helped me, being a smaller player, putting on some weight and muscle and that was the best route for me. I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.”
Hillen went undrafted during his college career but it it paid off in a big way. When his college days were over, he signed with the New York Islanders on April 1, 2008, straight off the college campus. He went from college athlete to professional hockey player overnight.
After signing, he immediately played a two-game series against the New York Rangers. “It was awesome,” he said. “It was one of the perks for signing with them. They said I could come out and play right away. You can’t turn down that opportunity to play in the NHL.
“It’s a once-in-a lifetime experience to play your first game and especially to experience the Islanders-Rangers rivalry in a home and away. It was great. I’ll remember those two games for the rest of my life.”
Since signing his first pro contract, Hillen has played 175 games in the NHL, picking up eight goals and 42 assists. Last season, he was second on the Islanders with 137 blocked shots in spite of missing time with a concussion and shoulder injury.
So how did he end up in Smashville? “They gave me the best opportunity,” Hillen said. “You look at your options, you look at where you have a chance to play, and you look at the organization.”
After being far from the playoffs on Long Island, Hillen wanted a chance for an extended season. “Nashville is a young team that made the playoffs and is looking to move forward. There is a good opportunity to try to make a squad that is a playoff team.”
For now, Hillen has one immediate goal but can’t help looking beyond that. “I’m just trying to make the team in camp. If that happens, I really want to experience playoff hockey going forward. That’s the main goal since we started camp.”
He is now on a team that is not satisfied with the second round. “That’s all we have been stressing is winning the Stanley Cup,” Hillen said. “So my first goal is to make the team, become a contributor, and then help us get to the ultimate goal.”
Hillen is still learning about Predator hockey and what is expected. “I don’t know what the coaching staff is thinking. It doesn’t hurt to have experience and know what it takes to play at that level.
“I know I can do it, so that definitely helps. I can’t worry about anybody else, or control what the coaching staff or the GM is thinking. I just have to go out there and play my game and hopefully that is good enough.”