Chicago Blackhawks Player Evaluations: Niklas Hjalmarsson

Hawks' defenseman had a resurgent 2013, will test free agent waters in 2014

 Throughout the month of July, Madhouse Enforcer will be taking a look at various members of the 2013 Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. What did they do right? What did they do wrong? What can they improve upon next season? We’ll answer all those questions and more in the lead-up to Blackhawks Convention, which starts July 26th.

Today’s first subject is Swedish sensation Niklas Hjalmarsson.

The Good:

For the past few years, it seemed as though fans would never see the same Hjalmarsson that had burst onto the scene during the team’s Stanley Cup run in 2010.

He would show flashes of that defenseman, jumping into the play on offense and more often than not making the correct defensive reads to prevent shots from getting on net, but there were also crippling periods of undisciplined play that cost the Hawks goals and ultimately a few games.
In 2013, however, Hjalmarsson seemed to have his legs back underneath him for the full slate.

Sure, there were still times that he would make bad reads or pinches, but his play was a big part of the reason that the Hawks were able to limit opponents to just 2.0 goals per game (the lowest total in the NHL) and 26.2 shots per game, fourth best in the league.

As the season wore on, Hjalmarsson was also trusted with more strenuous defensive assignments, taking only 48.4% of his shifts starting in the offensive zone, the lowest number on the team. Despite that, Hjalmarsson was still able to have a slight uptick in his offensive numbers, with two goals and eight assists during the regular season and five more helpers in the playoffs.

That all around quality of play shows pretty definitively that Hjalmarsson has matured into one of the Hawks’ best defensive players, and the team has to hope that he can continue that play as the Hawks defend their championship next season.

The Bad:

As stated during “the good” portion of the evaluation, Hjalmarsson still has games where his judgment seems to be a bit off, and at no point during the season was that fact more crystal clear than in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Boston Bruins.

In that game, Hjalmarsson was on the ice for four of the five goals that the Hawks gave up, and he did just about everything wrong that he could possibly do. He shied away from a Rich Peverley slapshot that ended up resulting in a goal. He had a couple of awful pinches along the boards that led to odd-man rushes for the Bruins. He skated with his stick off the ice, which rendered him unable to disrupt passes. He looked like a rookie playing his first game after an AHL stint, rather than a top four defenseman for a Cup champion.

Obviously every defenseman is going to have games and moments like this, but it still happens just a touch too regularly with Hjalmarsson. As he continues to gain NHL experience, the hiccups will hopefully continue to decrease, but until then, Hawks fans will continue to chew their nails off every time Hjalmarsson muffs a play on defense.

Best Game of 2013:

Hjalmarsson had a lot of good games in 2013, but his Game 4 performance against the Los Angeles Kings in the Western Conference Finals truly stood out.

In that game, the Hawks were without Duncan Keith due to suspension, but Hjalmarsson picked up the slack in just about every key area. He had two assists in the game, blocked two shots, and picked up a hit in nearly 25 minutes of ice time, and his effort helped the Hawks to an improbable 3-2 win, and gave them a commanding 3-1 lead in the series.

Without that kind of all-around virtuoso performance, the Hawks likely would have been dead in the water, but that’s what Hjalmarsson can bring to a team on a night in and night out basis: a two-way game that compares with some of the best players in the game.

Outlook for 2013-14:

Next season is going to be an interesting one. It will be the final year of the four year contract that he received after signing an offer sheet with the San Jose Sharks following the 2010 Cup season, and therefore all eyes will be on him as he nears free agency.

Whether the team will keep him remains to be seen (odds are that they won’t, considering the defensive depth they have in the minors and the other contracts that will need to be negotiated with guys like Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews), but if Hjalmarsson is having a so-so season, he could find himself on the trading block with players like Adam Clendening and Dylan Olsen itching for a shot at the big league roster.

In any case, the Hawks will need Hjalmarsson to continue his maturation in order to take pressure off of both Keith and Brent Seabrook, who suffered a bit after the team’s last Cup win under the increased workload the team’s lackluster blue line play forced upon them.

If Hjalmarsson can do that, then he will be in line for a nice payday following the season, but whether it will be with the Hawks or not remains to be seen.

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