By Brad Gardner
Niklas Hjalmarsson will have the third-highest cap hit on the Blackhawks’ blue line during the 2011-12 season, meaning increased expectations for the Swedish defender. Chicago GM Stan Bowman opted to match the offer sheet submitted by San Jose during the summer of 2010, so Hjalmarsson is owed 3.5 million dollars this season and two more seasons.
Originally selected in the 4th round, 108th overall in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, Hjalmarsson spent parts of two seasons in Chicago before sticking with the big club full time for the 2009-10 season. He was one of the club’s most dependable blueliners throughout the 2010 Stanley Cup run, finishing third among defensemen with 21 minutes of ice time per night and ranking second with a plus-nine rating in 22 playoff games. Hjalmarsson also finished fourth on the blue line with eight points during the 2010 playoffs, giving a glimpse of the potential two-way defender the organization believes he could be.
In his first year of the new deal in 2010-11, the pride of Eksjo, Sweden was unable to continue that same level of production. Like much of the team, Hjalmarsson got off to a rough start. He was rudderless without regular defensive partner Brian Campbell during the first month of the season, earning a minus-eight rating through the first 11 games of the year. Though his defensive zone play improved as the season wore on, he still only managed three goals and seven assists for 10 points in 80 regular season games.
Hjalmarsson was used in a largely defensive role for the Blackhawks last season, which explains part of his relatively low production. Though Chicago’s top pairing of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook were often matched against the opponent’s top offensive unit, Hjalmarsson was the only defenseman to have more defensive zone starts than offensive zone starts. He was also one of only four players on the team to average over two minutes on the penalty kill each night. He turned in a strong effort despite the tough minutes, ranking third on the entire team with a plus-13 rating.
Although he uses his mobility well in his own zone, Hjalmarsson could stand to use his body more. Listed at 6’3 and 205 pounds, Hjalmarsson finished last season with 46 hits, just one more than Duncan Keith. Many expected him to be more of a physical presence when he was developing in Sweden and in the AHL, but his biggest hit of last season was a blindside shot on Buffalo’s Jason Pominville. Hjalmarsson missed his only two games of the season due to the suspension he earned from that hit, which saw Pominville taken off the ice on a stretcher and forcing the Sabre out of the lineup for about three weeks. Hjalmarsson was still no slouch in his own end. He finished second on the defense with 32 takeaways and he certainly cannot be accused of being soft after leading the team with 166 blocked shots last year.
In the offensive end, Hjalmarsson has struggled to find consistency. He does not pull the trigger on his shot very often and is not all that dependable in hitting the net when he does let it rip. For a Blackhawks team that wants to crowd the front of the net and create chances from the blue line, some improvement for the Swede in terms of shot quantity and quality will go a long way in determining just how much of an offensive role he earns this season.
The Swede can contribute to the team’s puck possession game, as he is solid on the break out and able to make the safe, easy play to get the offense headed in the right direction. He struggled with turnovers last season, going from 36 giveaways in his first full season to 55 giveaways last year, but most of the defensive unit struggled to keep possession of the puck last season. He may not possess the touch to make the long stretch passes that the Blackhawks have used to great affect during the last few seasons, but he will still help the transition game quite a bit if he can cut down on the turnovers and make the easy plays.
Hjalmarsson will still see plenty of defensive assignments and PK time, but the offseason additions of Steve Montador (who will make more in salary than Hjalmarsson next season, but still has a lower cap hit) and Sean O’Donnell could lessen that load to some extent. He may also be depended on to create more chances in the offensive end now that Campbell has been traded to the Florida Panthers. With that in mind, ten points will probably not be seen as a successful year for the 24-year-old defenseman. Entering his third full NHL season with Chicago, Hjalmarsson will be under the microscope even more as he tries to live up to expectations that come along with the defense’s third-highest cap hit and an expected increase in ice time.