Now that it’s the end of July, I’m sure that there’s more than a few people surprised that Niklas Hjalmarsson is still a Chicago Blackhawk. The subject of trade rumors going back to last season, Hjalmarsson’s future in Chicago has been a question ever since he was retained in the summer of 2010.
Hjalmarsson was one of the few players from the Stanley Cup squad that was actually kept, which hadn’t already been locked up on a long term deal. A restricted free agent, the Blackhawks surprisingly matched the four-year, $14 million offer sheet that Doug Wilson and the Sharks had signed him too.
Since then, we’ve been hearing about how the Blackhawks could attempt to unload the 24-year-old Swede. Trade speculation was especially rampant heading into this offseason, in which the Hawks were expected to deal either Brian Campbell or Hjalmarsson to free up some extra cash.
But it was Campbell to be dealt, with the Hawks sending him to the Florida Panther, and Hjalmarsson gained new life with the team. The big question is whether or not he’ll take advantage of it and be a consistent contributor on the Chicago blue line.
Unfortunately, there were more negatives than positives for Hjalmarsson in 2010-11. The biggest issue is his physicality, or lack thereof. Not completely unlike Bryan Bickell, who has the size but doesn’t use it, Hjalmarsson failed to use his 6’3″ frame to benefit the team last season.
It’s not exactly like he was Brent Seabrook on the blue line in 2009, but he had 13 less hits last season than he did the season prior and was almost timid when the Blackhawks were in their own zone. There was also no shortage of mental errors coming from the direction of Hjalmarsson, who limited his mistakes, to the chagrin of Hawks fans, in the defensive zone. Blind passes and failed clearances did the Blackhawks and an already struggling blue line no favors last year.
But there were some positives. Those positives were the 166 shots that he blocked, on a team that really lacked that type of defenseman after Brent Sopel was cut loose last summer. His plus-13 for the season wasn’t too shabby either.
As is the case with Dave Bolland, who the Hawks are discovering is a premium defensive forward, but not a second line center, Chicago has a case where Hjalmarsson has the skill set to fill a specific role, at a less-than-stellar price.
Hjalmarsson isn’t really an offensive guy. He’ll throw a goal in once in a while, but Hjammer’s game is defensive. Which is why his struggles last season are disturbing. He’s going to need to settle down in his own zone and show he’s willing to take and give the big hit on occasion if he wants to avoid being pushed out by the outstanding defensive depth the Blackhawks have waiting in Rockford.
Though we have a pretty decent idea of who the top six defenseman could be to start the season for the Blackhawks, the matchups are a bit more unclear. It’s almost a certainty that Duncan Keith and Seabrook will start together on the top line, and will stay together unless they have another inconsistent year.
The situation with Hjalmarsson is intriguing. It’s highly likely that Nick Leddy is going to be the third d-man for the Hawks and will play on the second unit. Do the Blackhawks put Hjalmarsson next to him, or go with Steve Montador and make the third pairing a strictly defensive duo, with Hjammer and Sami Lepisto?
Either way, we’ll know more as the season grows closer. The thing that is certain, is that we’re going to need to see more out of Hjalmarsson next season. The Blackhawks don’t need 30 or 40 points from him. Even 20 would be a stretch. But he has to play solid, consistent hockey in the defensive zone, or life is going to continue to be as difficult for Corey Crawford as we saw at times last season.