It may sound strange to hear that a defenseman who logged 21:53 of time on ice per game just a season ago is set to hold even more responsibility, but that is exactly the situation in which Niklas Hjalmarsson of the Chicago Blackhawks finds himself in as the 2015-2016 NHL season approaches.
Hjalmarsson, 28, has been one of the three mainstays as a member of Chicago’s defensive unit throughout their three Stanley Cup championship runs alongside stars Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Due to his status as a second pairing defenseman by default, his massive contributions to his team’s success often go under-appreciated.
Hjalmarsson was just a 4th round pick back in 2005. It’s been a long journey for the Swede from NHL long-shot to elite NHL defenseman within the span of a decade. With the departure of his long-time partner Johnny Oduya to the Dallas Stars via free agency, Hjalmarsson will be even more relied upon by head coach Joel Quenneville to help shut down the offensive forces of Chicago’s opposition.
For the first time in a few years, it’s a massive question mark as to who will line up on Hjalmarsson’s right side on the Blackhawks’ second pairing come opening night. There are three main candidates (Trevor Daley, Trevor van Riemsdyk, and David Rundblad), but none of them offer anything remotely close to the veteran presence and defensive stability that was lost in Oduya’s departure. There is, however, plenty of reason to believe that it doesn’t really matter who Hjalmarsson is paired with so long as they aren’t a total liability on the ice. There’s lots of data to suggest that he’s an elite defenseman in almost every sense of the word.
Hjalmarsson By the Numbers
Over the past 4 seasons, there are 155 defensemen who have played at least 2,500 minutes at even strength. Surely this is a large enough sample to draw some fair conclusions about who may be among the league’s elite defensemen, and Hjalmarsson’s placing in many traditional and more advanced statistics indicate that he certainly belongs in the conversation.
In terms of possession, Hjalmarsson places 16th in shots for percentage, 26th in corsi for percentage, and 19th in fenwick for percentage. That’s certainly a pretty good sign that Hjalmarsson is an elite defenseman with regards to possession, but it’s certainly worth noting that he does play on an excellent possession team.
Additionally, Hjalmarsson’s defensive prowess is highlighted by his own fantastic suppression abilities. Hjalmarsson averages the 12th lowest shots against per 60 minutes at even strength among the same 155 players in the same time frame. His goal suppression abilities are amazing, as he ranks 10th in the league with only 1.81 goals against per 60 minutes. This despite an on-ice save percentage of only 92.95%, the fourth lowest of all defenders in the top 20.
To make all of this even more impressive is the ridiculous quality of competition that Hjalmarsson faces. According to stats.hockeyanalysis.com, Hjalmarsson’s weighted OPPGF% (opponents goals for percentage), is the 5th highest of the same 155 defensemen. The only players to face tougher competition than Hjalmarsson by this metric are Shea Weber, Roman Josi, Dion Phaneuf, and Mark Giordano. Of those four, only Giordano fares anywhere near as well as Hjalmarsson does by the aforementioned possession and suppression metrics.
While Hjalmarsson is demonstrably elite defensively at even strength, he’s also above average offensively. His 0.75 points per 60 minutes rank 63rd out of 155 and ahead of prolific offensive defensemen such as Drew Doughty, Jake Gardiner, Cam Fowler, Brian Campbell, and others. He’s also 46th in individual shot attempts.
Clearly, Hjalmarsson deserves to be recognized as one of the NHL’s premier shutdown defensemen. Unlike many prototypical shutdown defensemen, Hjalmarsson’s mobility is a strength and his outlet and stretch passes are quietly fantastic. As a result, he proves elite by just about any defensive metric one could imagine, while simultaneously being above league average in just about any offensive metric available.
And he does all of this while facing insanely difficult competition. He’ll certainly be taking on a more challenging role without his long term, reliable partner by his side, but there’s no doubt in my mind whatsoever that Hjalmarsson is the type of player who possesses the ability to rise to any challenge that the league throws his way. Anybody will tell you that Hjalmarsson is an underrated player, but it’s about time for the public opinion to shift to reflect the reality that he’s also an elite one.