Jack Hillen was in a foul mood when he left PNC Arena last Friday.
He was back Thursday and all smiles, if still a bit dazed.
So much has happened to Hillen in a week’s time. The defenseman was playing for the Washington Capitals a week ago, and was on the ice Friday against the Carolina Hurricanes when Canes forward Elias Lindholm skated past him behind the Caps net and set up Jeff Skinner for a goal with a nice pass.
The 3-0 loss didn’t set well with the Caps. As Hillen put in Thursday, “We came in needing to win and the Canes outplayed the Caps that game.”
Less than 24 hours later, Hillen was back on the ice – in a Canes uniform.
The Hurricanes and Capitals agreed on a trade Saturday morning, with the Canes sending defenseman Tim Gleason to the Caps while acquiring Hillen and a fourth-round pick in the 2015 NHL draft.
Caps coach Barry Trotz called Hillen to his office at the Kettler Capitals Iceplex to deliver the news. In a matter of moments, he was packed and gone, unable to even say goodbye to teammates who hadn’t yet arrived for practice.
“It’s crazy,” Hillen said of his first career trade. “It’s been different, that’s for sure.”
Hillen hopped a flight to Long Island, got to Nassau Coliseum an hour before the 5 p.m. start, then hopped into the Canes’ lineup and played more than 17 minutes in a 5-3 victory over the New York Islanders. It all was such a blur that he hardly had enough time to talk to his wife, Caitlin, who is pregnant with their third son and expecting in May.
“I was caught a little off-guard,” he said. “Being at the rink and playing hockey is the fun part, the easy part. The hard part is the traveling and being away from your family and trying to deal with logistics. But so far, so good.”
The Canes played Monday in Chicago, losing 5-2 to the Blackhawks. Hillen, 29, then was given some personal time Wednesday to return to the D.C. area and help his family plan for a move to Minnesota.
“My wife’s awesome,” Hillen said. “She’s dealing with a lot of stuff and helping me out. And little kids are resilient, too.”
There finally was a degree of normalcy Thursday when Hillen put in his first practice at PNC Arena. Above his locker stall was “Hillen 38” and not the “New Guy” tag he saw in the room in Long Island.
Against the Isles and the Blackhawks, Hillen was caught up in quickly learning Canes coach Bill Peters’ systems, the way the Canes want their D-men to play.
Hillen now has more time to get a better grasp of things, saying, “It’s the systems away from the puck that I’m still trying to get a handle on. I understand them but when they’re not second nature your gaps aren’t as good as you hoping they’d be, because you’re doing too much reading.
“As I play a little bit more the systems away from the puck will become instinct. Just skate and not think too much about it.”
Canes defenseman John-Michael Liles was in a similar position last year. He was about to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs against the Detroit Red Wings in the Jan. 1 Winter Classic game at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Mich., when he was called out of the pregame warmups.
Liles had been traded to the Hurricanes – for Gleason. He soon was on a flight to Washington for a game the next day against the Caps, and had “New Guy” above his locker.
“It’s a challenge,” Liles said Thursday. “You’re trying to re-learn tendencies and systems of a different team. When you play for a team for a number of years, you know the guys and suddenly you have to learn 22 new players and figure out the coaching staff, things like that.
“Sometimes it works out and turns out to be a good fit. Sometimes it works out the other way. But it’s the nature of the business we’re in.”
Hillen, like Gleason, will be an unrestricted free agent after the season. For now, he has 20 games to try and make his new team a good fit.
“It’s a good opportunity for me to come and play and show what I can do,” he said.