Unsung Hjalmarsson key to Hawks' defense

Niklas Hjalmarsson has built a reputation as a tough defenseman who is unafraid to throw his body in front of the puck. Cal Sport Media/AP Images

Longtime Sweden coach Par Marts doesn’t remember many teenagers who were bold enough to enter his office and ask to be traded.

Niklas Hjalmarsson did just that.

Hjalmarsson was 19 years old and playing for Marts on HV71 in the Swedish Hockey League in 2006. Hjalmarsson’s talent had already been identified as he was drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks the year before and he was playing in the top Swedish league with more experienced players. The problem was Hjalmarsson wasn’t getting a lot of ice time, and he was concerned it would affect his selection to play for Sweden in the World Junior Championships.

Hjalmarsson saw the only way to ensure himself a spot on the team. He needed to go elsewhere and play more. So, he knocked on Marts’ door.

“He’s prepared to pay the price to reach his goal,” Marts said by phone from Sweden. “I haven’t heard that from many players, but he stepped in my office and said, ‘Send me away. I don’t care where.’”

Hjalmarsson got his wish. Marts agreed to trade him. Hjalmarsson went to a lower division team, flourished there and was chosen to play in the World Junior Championships. He returned to HV71 after the tournament and was given a larger role by Marts. A season later, he made his NHL debut.

Determination is the word most commonly associated with Hjalmarsson. Whether it’s asking to be traded at 19, blocking pucks and fighting through the pain that follows or putting in the time to develop such skills as his ability to optimally defend with his stick, Hjalmarsson has always been driven to do whatever it takes to succeed. It’s an approach that’s helped him become one of the league’s premier shutdown defensemen and a key piece to the Blackhawks' success.

“I think that’s been one of my strengths since growing up that I’m pretty aware of what I have to do,” said Hjalmarsson, who has played 531 regular-season and playoff games for the Blackhawks since making his debut in 2008. “I’m usually aware of when I play good and when I play bad; when I’m playing bad, what I can do to get back to where I want to be. I don’t know, good intuition, I think.”

Knowing what’s best for him

Fredrik Olausson was in his late 30s and was at the tail end of a long professional career when he became teammates with Hjalmarsson on HV71 in the 2004-05 season. Hjalmarsson was just beginning his pro career.

Hjalmarsson respected Olausson, who spent 16 years in the NHL, as well as all the elder defensemen on HV71 and his veteran opponents, but Hjalmarsson never backed down to them and was constantly pushing himself to prove he belonged.

“He was and has always been to me someone who had a lot of character and a lot of intensity,” said Olausson, who is now an assistant coach for HV71, by phone from Sweden. “I think that symbolizes Nik. He was dedicated as a young kid and worked very hard. He always stood up for himself and for his teammates.”

Marts remembered Hjalmarsson not being afraid of anyone.

“He played a tough game,” said Marts, who also coached Hjalmarsson in the Olympics last year. “He took some hits on the older guys. That’s wasn’t a popular thing to do. He played his way. He didn’t care what the other guys said to him. He played hard. That’s one key for him, perhaps.”

Hjalmarsson had watched other players come through HV71 and didn’t think they all handled themselves properly. He had in mind a specific way of doing things and was confident that his approach would be best for his career.

“It was just something I figured out pretty quick,” Hjalmarsson said. “Watching some of the older players coming up and trying to make the team back in Sweden and they didn’t really make it. I kind of saw it from a distance being younger than them. I didn’t like their attitude in some of the guys that went up and tried to make the team.

“Obviously you should have respect for the older guys and what they’ve done and what they’ve accomplished. Coming up as a young guy, you can’t show them too much respect either. You have to earn your way into the league and show you want to be a big part of the team.”

Hjalmarsson’s distinct personality was noticeable to his agent Kevin Epp when he first met Hjalmarsson, and to Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman when their front office tried to get Hjalmarsson to play in the AHL for the Rockford IceHogs rather than return to Sweden in 2007. In both cases, Epp and Bowman quickly understood Hjalmarsson wasn’t like most European players.

“I guess the thing that is always unique is when you come over from Europe as a young player and you fit right in,” Epp said. “After the first time I had seen him play in Rockford and met with him, I told my partner over here, ‘Not really Swedish. He’s kind of Canadian.’ His whole mentality and his whole approach of just about fitting in and doing stuff. He didn’t come over here with the impression I’m going to hang out with other Swedish guys or European players. I want to fit in with the North American guys. He’s always had that approach of team-first.”

Bowman and the Blackhawks front office had a similar experience. They first had to convince Hjalmarsson to attend the team’s prospect camp in the summer of 2007.

“He said, ‘Nope I’m going to Sweden. I’m staying with my team,’” Bowman recently said. “Why don’t you come over? So, we finally got him to come. Once he was at our camp, he realized this is probably the best thing for me, and he changed his mind. He said I’m coming here. I’m coming. He was in Rockford for a year and a half.

“So, he made the decision that was the right step for his career even though at that time it was not as likely for those players to come over to spend a year or two in the minors.”

Finding a home in Chicago

Hjalmarsson put in his time in the AHL like he did in Sweden. He spent the bulk of two seasons playing for the IceHogs before getting a full-time NHL opportunity.

Hjalmarsson utilized that period in the AHL to cultivate his game. Current IceHogs head coach Ted Dent was an assistant and worked with the defensemen when Hjalmarsson was on the team.

“I remember he was a great kid, just a pleasure to coach,” Dent said. “Just wanted to get better every single day. He had a high compete level, held himself to a high standard. Always wanted to play at a high level. Very intense on the bench as well, which was great. He would do anything for the team to win.”

Hjalmarsson carried that approach with him to the NHL. He began the 2009-10 season in Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville’s lineup and never left it.

Hjalmarsson played more than a minor role in his first full NHL season. He became a top-4 defenseman for Quenneville. He had 17 points, was a plus-9 and averaged 19:40 of ice time in the regular season. His minutes were increased in the playoffs, and he was a plus-9 while helping the Blackhawks to their first Stanley Cup in 49 years.

But just when the Blackhawks finally were discovering how good Hjalmarsson could be, they nearly lost him.

The Blackhawks were in a financial bind after their 2010 Stanley Cup season and weren’t going to be able to afford to return everyone. Hjalmarsson’s entry-level contract expired after the season, and his play had attracted attention from other teams. The San Jose Sharks put in an offer sheet on him for four years and $14 million.

“I think the thing was we talked to a number of teams leading up to it,” Epp said. “I think a lot of teams realized Nik’s value, his intangibles and the type of player he was. I think he was sought after by a number of teams he probably could have had offer sheets from.

“I think ultimately teams were targeting him, one, because of the player he was and, two, the situation that Chicago was in. I think they believed there was a strong chance they could get him.”

Bowman understood Hjalmarsson’s value as well and matched the offer sheet even though it meant being unable to re-sign goaltender Antti Niemi. Bowman again re-signed Hjalmarsson after the Blackhawks’ 2013 Stanley Cup season, and Hjalmarsson is now signed through the 2018-19 season.

Emulating Hjalmarsson

Anaheim Ducks forward Tim Jackman gathered a loose puck in the neutral zone Friday and appeared to have some room in front of him.

Hjalmarsson skated diagonally from the right side to meet Jackman as he skated up the boards. While moving parallel to Jackman, Hjalmarsson held his stick in his right hand, reached out, poked the puck away from Jackman, gained possession and passed the puck the other way.

It’s something Hjalmarsson does on most nights. He learned early in his career his greatest defensive tool was his stick, and he’s become a master at using it.

“His influence on the ice with his stick is phenomenal,” Dent said. “It’s hard for some players, especially some defensemen, to become very comfortable with it and very good with it. The game is turning a game where the players are so big and so strong that they can control the puck so well. You got to find a way to influence the puck and strip them of the puck.”

Hjalmarsson credited Quenneville for encouraging him to do so.

“My first couple years with Joel he really pressed on that,” Hjalmarsson said. “I don’t think I had the same kind of stick before I had Joel to be honest with you.

“After playing like that for a couple years, you can try to do it better too and try to develop it. As long as you have good stick positions and body positioning, you really don’t have to play too physical either as long as you’re in position. That saves a lot of bruises on your body.”

Quenneville doesn’t think he had anything to do with that.

“That was the best thing about him right off the bat,” Quenneville said. “He had a tremendous gap defensively. He was always in the right spot. His decision-making, thought process was always in the right spot.

“Cutting off pucks is something we always talk about, but he always had a great stick. He influenced a lot of pucks. He broke up a lot of plays inside or outside our blue line. Defending and blocking shots or getting pucks off his stick and wrapping them into the crowd or the netting now, I 8just think he has real strong, great defensive instincts.”

Hjalmarsson does that so well Dent constantly uses video of Hjalmarsson to demonstrate the proper technique to his defensemen. Blackhawks prospect Klas Dahlbeck, a fellow Swedish defenseman, has watched Hjalmarsson’s play plenty.

“The years I’ve been down in Rockford, they’ve been kind of showing me a lot of his video and the same details he’s doing really well in his game and trying to add it to mine,” Dahlbeck said. “He’s just a good guy to be looking at it.”

Dahlbeck isn’t the only Swedish defenseman who wants to be like Hjalmarsson. He’s created a following back home. Marts described him as “one of the best Swedish shutdown defenders ever.”

“The one thing that strikes me about him is most of the Swedish defensemen you talk to the NHL draft combine, you ask, ‘Who do you compare yourself to?’” one Western Conference scout said. “Everyone says Niklas Hjalmarsson. A lot of guys emulate Hjalmarsson. I’ve found the last years being involved in the combine, his name comes up with the top prospects in the draft.”

‘We all should be battling’

Hjalmarsson’s impact on the Blackhawks can partially be measured through statistics.

Hjalmarsson starts in the neutral and defensive zones more than any of the Blackhawks’ defensemen. He and Johnny Oduya face the highest quality of competition among their defensemen. Despite that, Hjalmarsson is second among the team’s defensemen with a plus-9 goal differential (33 goals for, 24 against with him on the ice) and has a 52.6 Corsi percentage in 5-on-5 situations.

Hjalmarsson has also factored into the Blackhawks’ penalty kill in recent seasons. He’s led the Blackhawks in shorthanded ice time the last three seasons. The Blackhawks finished the 2012-13 season third in penalty-kill percentage, were 19th last season and are first this season.

Hjalmarsson has also been first or second on the Blackhawks in blocked shots the past five seasons. It’s that willingness to step in front of pucks which led to Oduya, a fellow a Swede, to give him the unique nickname of Swedish Viking last season. Hjalmarsson took a puck to the throat in the playoffs last season. While he wasn’t allowed to talk for some time, he never missed a game.

Hjalmarsson is always quick to dismiss that he’s doing anything special when he blocks shots, but his teammates don’t take what he does for granted.

“When I watch him play, it gives you just a feeling that we all should be doing that,” Blackhawks defenseman Michal Rozsival said. “He basically puts his body and health on the line. Every shift he’s on the ice he’s blocking shots. It gives the whole team like a different vibe. We all should be doing this. We all should be battling. We should be playing hard like he does.”

Bowman has never regretted matching Hjalmarsson’s offer sheet back in 2010. While Blackhawks defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook receive a lot of the attention, Hjalmarsson has been just as important in his own way.

“He keeps getting better, which is one of those things you hope players do,” Bowman said. “He’s just sort of entering the prime of his career. Even though it seems like he’s been around forever, he’s only 27 years old. He’s got a lot of years ahead of him.”