Over the Olympic break, I’m doing a daily review of one or several Chicago Blackhawks players and giving out grades based on his or their performance during the 2013-14 season. Today, we examine Niklas Hjalmarsson.
Contrary to popular belief, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are not the primary shutdown defensive pairing for the Blackhawks. That descriptor actually applies to the nominal “second pair.” That is, Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya.
Hjalmarsson leads the Blackhawks in blocked shots and shorthanded time on ice. He has also managed to maintain a high positive +/-, a genuinely remarkable accomplishment in light of his team-high quality of competition and team-low offensive zone start percentage.
Still, this is nothing new. Hjalmarsson’s defensive game has been exceptional for at least the past three seasons. His most striking step forward came in 2013-14, then, has come on the offensive side of the puck.
Specifically, Hjalmarsson is evidently much more comfortable making the proverbial “first pass” in Chicago’s stretch scheme. This has predictably led to a jump in point output, as Hjalmarsson has already surpassed his career high with 22 games still left on the schedule. A further implication of this improved first pass has been a declivitous decline in errant passes going for icings, a problem that used to plague Hjalmarsson more than any NHL player in recent memory.
There is, however, plenty of offensive development left to be done. Hjalmarsson is still fairly jumpy with the puck on his stick, and leads the Blackhawks in giveaways by an enormous margin. “Room for improvement” has always been a valid characterization of his general puck skills since the beginning of his career, and so it remains.
Final Verdict: B+
There is no denying Hjalmarsson’s fantastic performance for Chicago in the defensive zone, but he has been turning the puck over at a truly alarming rate in 2013-14.