May 23, 2013; Detroit, MI, USA; Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson (4) skates with the puck against the Detroit Red Wings in game four of the second round for the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Joe Louis Arena. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The Redemption Of Niklas Hjalmarsson

As a defenseman, you are expected to face lots of adversity on the ice. Niklas Hjalmarsson stood up to the task ever since he cracked the Chicago Blackhawks’ lineup in 2007. However, Hjalmarsson hasn’t always been in the good books of Blackhawks fans. With Hjalmarsson signed to a five-year contract this week, he is here to stay. Here is the classic story of redemption; Niklas Hjalmarsson style.

The day was June 30, 2005. The Chicago Blackhawks entered the lockout-influenced NHL draft looking for speedy and skilled forwards. Their first round pick turned out to be a bust, in the underachieving Jack Skille, now a member of the Florida Panthers. Round two saw Dan Bertram put on the Indian Head sweater, something he has never done since then, and has retired circa 2011. The Blackhawks’ third crack at the cat was Evan Brophey, who has played four career NHL games. Then-GM Dale Tallon decided to head a different direction in the fourth round, and selected Swedish defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson 108th overall. Looking back, Hjalmarsson saved what was otherwise a terrible draft year for the Blackhawks.

Two short years later, Hjalmarsson found himself in a Blackhawks sweater, playing 13 games for the squad. Despite only pocketing one assist, the big Swede showed lots of potential, and had ability to be a ‘top four’ defenseman for the Blackhawks with a little development in the minors. After splitting the 2007-08 campaign between Chicago and their AHL affiliate, the Rockford IceHogs, Hjalmarsson showed immediate improvement the following year. 2008-09 saw Hjalmarsson dress 21 times for the Blackhawks in the regular season, and play all 17 games in the playoffs, scoring his first career goal in the process, and going +2 in the stretch. Hjalmarsson impressed the most defensively, however, keeping the crease clear with his big frame, and smothering opposing chances with a long reach, and good positional play. Blackhawks fans were excited to see a stay-at-home defenseman on the Blackhawks’ blue-line emerge, and expected him back for his first full season the following year.

Hjalmarsson did just that in 2009-10, playing in 77 games, recording 17 points and a plus-minus of +9 in the regular season. Hjalmarsson’s defensive play got even better during this time, and was found on the first penalty-kill unit thanks to his great shot-blocking ability. The Blackhawks cruised to a third-place finish in the Western Conference, and were off to the Playoffs for the second consecutive season.

The Blackhawks’ magical playoff journey started with a 4-1 loss to the Nashville Predators. This game also started Hjalmarsson’s decline in ice time, as the playoff-tested players were put out even more often. The Blackhawks split the next two games, and they found themselves down 2-1 to the divisional foe.

The Blackhawks’ blue-line shifted to the Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith show after that, and after winning three straight games to take the series, there seemed to be no reason for change. Hjalmarsson found himself playing less minutes, and he was in the shadows as Keith and Seabrook stole the spotlight all the way to the Blackhawks’ first Stanley Cup in 49 years.

After the dust settled, GM Stan Bowman had some moves to make. The team was dismantled, with the likes of Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, and Brent Sopel getting a change of scenery. Bowman still had tricks up his sleeve come August that year, when he shipped off #1 goaltender Annti Niemi to the San Jose Sharks, a move that saw an outrage from Blackhawks fans. Hjalmarsson was staying in Chicago, and many fans were not happy about it. They would have liked the Finnish goaltender back between the pipes instead, but Bowman put faith in rookie Corey Crawford the upcoming season.

Hjalmarsson was at one point, an outcast. Blackhawks’ faithful no longer looked at him at face value, but instead, “the guy Bowman kept instead of Niemi.” Hjalmarsson continued his quality defensive play, but was still on the outside with Keith and Seabrook as the Blackhawks’ top two defenseman.

Fast-forward to the 2013 playoffs. The Blackhawks were expected to dominate after a regular season that was nothing short of spectacular. A wicked offense stole the show all year, but a complete team was needed to ensure success in the post-season. Hjalmarsson, who had stayed relatively quiet all year, stepped up in a big way. Defensively, he was a killer, taking down some of Minnesota and Detroit’s biggest offensive threats all game. Hjalmarsson stepped up in crunch time with big blocks, and was a key part of the Blackhawks’ comeback against the Red Wings, staying airtight at his end while the ‘Hawks took charge on offense.

Hjalmarsson’s best game of the playoffs came during the Western Conference Final. In Game Three, Duncan Keith delivered a high-stick to the face of the Los Angeles Kings’ Jeff Carter, earning him a one-game suspension. Hjalmarsson took his place on the first pairing, and along with Brent Seabrook, gave the Kings no room. Hjalmarsson was +2 and had two assists in 24:57 of ice time, and was one of the biggest contributors in the game as the Blackhawks beat L.A., 3-2.

Just two weeks later, the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup, with Hjalmarsson earning his second Cup ring. This time, he was in the spotlight, and the entire Blackhawks defensive core was praised for doing such a great job behind the scenes as the forwards stole the show all year long. Personally, Hjalmarsson proved his worth in 2013, and was back in the good books everywhere after a stellar season on both ends of the ice.

Hjalmarsson’s great summer was just getting started, as he was signed to a five-year contract extension in the late stages of the off-season. Hjalmarsson could have taken his talents somewhere else for a bigger paycheck, but said that was never a thought. With #4 to remain a Blackhawk until at least 2019, it means Blackhawks’ fans know there is more great defense in the years ahead.

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