Niklas Hjalmarsson Was His Usual Self For The Chicago Blackhawks
Now this is a postseason grade I look forward to doing. Niklas Hjalmarsson is easily one of the most underrated players on the Chicago Blackhawks roster, if not the most underrated of all (Marcus Kruger is also in the hunt, as is Corey Crawford). Hjalmarsson plays a true defensive defenseman style, and it’s equal parts entertaining and painful to watch.
But Hjalmarsson had a very interesting season, statistically, when the Blackhawks struggled on the blue line. As the season wore on, it did seem like Hjammer was a bit tired, especially against the rugged St. Louis Blues in the postseason. Still, that doesn’t mean he had a bad year by any means. It was just a bit different from what we’re used to.
Oh, the blocked shots were there. The general on-ice discipline was also intact. But there was more offense, more ice time and more chances for Hjammer to play defense this season. When you really look into the stats, it’s almost amazing what he was able to achieve this season while essentially having to babysit or cover for a cast of teammates.
2015-16 regular-season stats: 81 games, 2 goals, 22 assists, plus-13 rating
2016 postseason stats: 7 games, 0 goals, 1 assist, plus-5 rating
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Well, let’s get to the obvious ones first before we delve into the surprises. Hjalmarsson set a career high in average time on ice during the regular season, notching 22:23 per game. His previous high was 21:53 the season before. It’s almost amazing Hjammer didn’t have to take more time on the ice, considering Duncan Keith was the only other consistently reliable defenseman throughout the season.
But all of this time on ice led to a nice spike in Hjalmarsson’s offensive output. His eye for seeing good offensive opportunities is pretty surprising, and he also has a cannon of a shot when he lets it go from the point. We also saw Hjammer pinching in a little more this season and trying to make things happen offensively in that way. It led to those 22 helpers, tying his career high from the 2013-14 season.
The 151 blocks he posted in the regular season were the third most in his career. But in the postseason, he took it to a whole different level. In just seven games against the Blues, Hjalmarsson recorded 23 blocked shots. His career high in the postseason came last year with 65 in 23 games.
So, in the 2015 playoffs, Hjammer averaged 2.83 blocked shots per game. In the 2016 postseason, that was up to 3.29. Now, there’s reason to believe the figure would’ve receded a bit if the Blackhawks beat the Blues, who were firing away from the point relentlessly in the matchup. But that’s still an absolutely incredible display of putting one’s body on the line, especially considering Hjammer played about 24:11 in ice time per game this postseason, the second-highest mark in his career (behind 26:02 last playoffs).
Lastly, I want to bring up Hjammer’s defensive-zone starts. We’re used to seeing him utilized primarily in the defensive end of the ice, but he managed to post a career high in D-zone starts this regular season at 56.1 percent (previous high: 52.3 last season). And yet, his Corsi-for mark checked in at 51.3 percent.
That figure held pretty firm in the postseason, too, with his Corsi-for at 51.4 percent despite even more ridiculous zone-start splits: 66.3 percent of his shifts began in the defensive zone. That’s incredible.
I think we’re seeing Hjammer at his peak right now, and while playing more minutes with Keith certainly helped some of these stats, there’s also something to be said for Hjammer’s conditioning level and on-ice skill set. We can only hope the Blackhawks have a Stanley Cup run or two more in them while Hjammer’s body is still going strong, because with the way he plays the game, we can’t expect that to last forever.
Hjammer gave the puck away quite a bit, although that’s something he’s dealt with throughout his career. A part of it has to do with being primarily in the defensive zone, but he still had an almost 1:2 ratio of takeaways to giveaways in the regular season.
I do wish Hjammer had shot the puck a little more in the regular season, especially since he was given more ice time than normal and more shifts with Keith. His 77 shots were below the 98 and 97 he posted in the previous two seasons, leading to a shooting percentage (2.6) that was his lowest since the 2011-12 season.
The only other negative I can think of regarding Hjammer is easy to defend. As I said earlier in the post, it seemed as though Hjammer tired out a bit into the postseason. You can’t really blame the guy for that, considering all these stats I’ve brought up, how often he needed to be utilized by coach Joel Quenneville and where he was utilized on the ice most often. It’s a drawback, but not one you’re going to be upset over.
Yes, I’m giving Hjalmarsson the same grade I gave to Patrick Kane and Crawford. Hjammer was just that good, and the Blackhawks needed him to be that good every step of the way. We can only hope he maintains this level of success a few more years, helping the Blackhawks to another couple runs at the Cup with the core in its prime.