#4 Niklas Hjalmarsson
Birthdate: June 6, 1987 (Age 28)
Hometown: Eksjo, Sweden
Underrated But Not Under-Appreciated
Often, in our Blackhawks player spotlight, we focus on new players or prospects getting their first shot at the prime time. Today, we’re going to break from the norm and take a look at the oft-underrated blue liner, Niklas Hjalmarsson.
Hjalmarsson was drafted 108th overall in the 2005 NHL Draft by the Chicago Blackhawks. He played for three years in Elitserien with HV71 of the Swedish Hockey League, before making his way to North America to play for the Rockford IceHogs in 2007.
Hjammer spent the bulk of the 2007-08 season with the IceHogs though he was called up by the Hawks for 13 games towards the end of the season. He played another 21 games the following season after James Wisniewski was traded to the Ducks at the deadline. Hjalmarsson has been a mainstay on the Hawks blue line ever since.
The 2009-10 season was his first full season with the Hawks, and Hjammer made his presence known. Hjalmarsson played 77 games in the regular season and another 22 in the playoffs. In fact, he was integral to the Blackhawks victory in game six of the Stanley Cup Finals that year against the Philadelphia Flyers. Hjammer fired a shot from the top of the circle that Andrew Ladd deflected into the net, giving the Hawks a 3-2 lead.
The Flyers would later tie the game, but Hjammer’s shot and subsequent assist ensured that there would be an overtime period, instead of a game seven. Patrick Kane ended the series in overtime, and Hjalmarsson and the Hawks got their first Stanley Cup of the salary cap era.
Tough As Nails
There are few players in the league today that are willing to sacrifice their body the way the Hjalmarsson does, night in and night out; Even fewer that can do it and rarely miss a shift.
Anyone who has watched the Hawks on a nightly basis can probably recall at least five times that they thought Hjammer would be sitting in the locker room for the rest of the night, only to see him step over the boards on the very next shift. There isn’t a shot that Hammer won’t try to stop, whether it takes sliding down to the ice to clear a puck, or stepping into the crosshairs of a blistering slap shot from the point.
There have been a number of instances that Hjammer has gone to the bench for on-the-fly repairs and stepped back onto the ice as soon as the last stitch is tied off. There is simply no denying that Niklas Hjalmarsson is as tough as nails.
In fact, there was no single instance that better displayed Hjamlarsson’s toughness, than the playoff game versus the Minnesota Wild in 2014. Hjammer blocked a wrist shot from the point that hit him full on in the throat. The Swede did not miss a shift. In fact, for about two weeks Hjalmarsson was unable to speak, and had to wear a throat guard, but he played in every playoff game thereafter. Former teammate Johnny Oduya had this to say about his D partner afterward.
“He’s a tough character. He’s a Swedish Viking. He’s one of a kind, obviously. It’s good for morale. We know he’s always out there doing his job.”
— 670 The Score (@670TheScore) May 19, 2014
Chicago Goes All in On Hjammer
On July 9, 2010, Hjalmarsson signed an offer sheet from the San Jose Sharks for $14 million over four years. Just four days later, the Blackhawks chose to match the offer. The deal was a huge vote of confidence from the Hawks, as they were forced to give up their starting goalie, Antti Niemi in order to afford the big contract.
It was a common thought that the San Jose Sharks had actually wanted Niemi and had used the offer sheet to force the Blackhawks hand. At the time, it was controversial among the fan base, but there is little doubt that the Hawks made the right choice by keeping Hjammer over Niemi now.
In many ways, the Sharks may have done the Hawks a tremendous favor as Hjalmarsson has continued to rise, while Niemi faltered without the defensive presence that the Hawks offered. Niemi remains a top goalie (now with the Dallas Stars), but his game was never quite the same in San Jose, as it had been here in Chicago.
Shut Down Specialist
Hjalmarsson was eventually matched up with fellow Swede, Oduya, and the duo became one of the premier shutdown pairings in the league. The two were consistently on the ice in the defensive zone, working tirelessly to keep the high percentage scoring opportunities to a minimum. When that failed, Hjammer did what he does best; Stood directly in the line of fire, absorbing as many shots as he could get in front of.
There is probably no one that appreciates what Hjalmarsson does more than coach Joel Quenneville, a former defenseman himself. Words of praise do not fall endlessly from the lips of Coach Q, but when asked about the play of the veteran defenseman, high praise is often the norm.
“He’s always been good,” Quenneville said. “Defending top players, defending tough situations, blocking shots, he’s a warrior. I think he’s as good a defender as there is in the game.”
Now five years after the Blackhawks made that choice to keep Hjalmarsson, he has earned two more Stanley Cup rings and is on the hunt for more. The Hawks organization inked an extension with Hjammer in September of 2013, adding another five years and $20.5 million that would keep the blue liner in Chicago through the 2018-19 season.
Hjammer has been the best shutdown defenseman the Hawks have had in recent years, consistently drawing the best scoring threats the opposition has to offer on a regular basis. While his career may not get him to the Hall of Fame, it will almost certainly earn him a place among the Blackhawks best defensemen.
For Hjammer, the numbers are rarely flashy. He does not score a lot of goals, or even put up a lot of assists compared to his counterparts on the Hawks; But, without a Hjammer, it is much harder to drive the nails into the coffins of the opposition.
Perhaps, Hjalmarsson can sum up his role better than anyone.
“You want to be out there when the game is on the line the last couple minutes and make big plays for the team,” Hjalmarsson said. “There’s no greater feeling after a game when you win, and you feel like you’ve been doing everything you can.”
It is a rare night when Hjalmarsson can’t leave the ice feeling like he left everything he had out there. Hjammer is often a man of few words, but there is only one needed to define him as a player.
Kristi is a long time hockey fan who grew up in, and around hockey rinks across the United States and Canada. A native Chicagoan, Loucks has always been an avid Blackhawks fan. Kristi also covers the Chicago Cubs and writes suspense thrillers, when not covering the Chicago Blackhawks. Follow Kristi on twitter @louckske