Coyotes’ Niklas Hjalmarsson insists his mileage isn’t a problem
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Niklas Hjalmarsson logged 623 regular-season games and 128 playoff games over eight-plus seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks. They were hard miles, driven largely by the veteran defenseman’s penchant for playing in traffic. Oncoming traffic.
“I still think his positioning is so strong that a lot of times he’s a deterrent to take shots,” Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “He’s always in the right lanes and finds a way to get in the way of not just big shots, but dangerous shots, and his gap is dangerous so there’s a lot of contesting of pucks.”
Hjalmarsson has blocked 1,484 shots in his NHL career, including a career-high 181 last season that was the sixth highest mark in the NHL. His bones can probably tell all 1,484 of those tales through carbon dating, but for those concerned that all those dents and all those hard minutes and all those long postseason runs have taken their toll on his 30-year-old body, Hjalmarsson had some encouraging words this week.
He does not feel old. He does not feel worn down, and his explanation will make Blackhawk-hating Coyotes fans smile on two fronts.
“If you had asked me a couple seasons ago, I definitely would have said yes but now, in Chicago, we really didn’t go that far in the playoffs the last two years, so for the long term I think it has been good for my body,” he said. “I feel as fresh as ever to be honest with you. My body feels great. I have no complaints about that at all.”
Although Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet has not named his defensive pairs yet, it is widely assumed that Hjalmarsson will play with Oliver Ekman-Larsson on the top pair — widely assumed because general manager John Chayka consulted Ekman-Larsson about a potential partner this offseason and both came to the conclusion that Hjalmarsson was the best fit.
Hours before the NHL Draft began in Chicago in June, Chayka traded defenseman Connor Murphy and minor-league center Laurent Dauphin to the Blackhawks for Hjalmarsson, a deal induced by Chicago’s annual cap constraints.
“If God would have made him right-handed he would’ve been the perfect fit for OEL,” Chayka quipped at the draft. “I just think with Oliver, what makes him special is him playing with the puck and his offensive game; the way he makes plays. Hjalmarsson is an elite defender; one of the best. He kind of covers up and allows Oliver to do his thing.”
While Tocchet was displeased with many of the Coyotes on the opening day of training camp, he could be heard complimenting Hjalmarsson on his gaps or his decision making.
“He’s a pro. He was good out there,” Tocchet said. “He does all the right things, gaps up, he’s the first guy in line, he’s in the gym. That’s why he is who he is and it’s good to have a guy like that because we have young guys that can follow him.”
Hjalmarsson played a lot with Blackhawks star defenseman Duncan Keith, so his role was more as a shutdown defender.
“I just gave him the puck,” Hjalmarsson said, smiling.
In simplest terms, that could be what he does with Ekman-Larsson, too, but there may be more to his offensive game than the stats show. Quenneville hinted that his offense was better when called upon last season for what was a depleted Blackhawks blue line. Hjalmarsson had a career-high five goals last season.
“Nik’s played in the shadows of a couple of stars in Chicago in Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook so for a lot of people he’s quietly flown under the radar, but for people in business, guys who paid attention, he’s been a huge component for their three Stanley Cups,” said Coyotes assistant coach Scott Allen, who coaches the defense.
Allen agrees there may be more to Hjalmarsson’s offensive game.
“I think it maybe hasn’t been explored because of who he played with,” Allen said. “I think that element could be there, but we don’t want him just thinking that way.”
The Coyotes want the puck on Ekman-Larsson’s stick as much as possible, so Hjalmarsson could slide into a comfortable role. Even so, Hjalmarsson said he is training differently than he did when he was younger.
“I still lift weights but it’s not as heavy as I did before,” he said. “I focus much more on mobility and stretching and trying to work out smarter than I was before. Those things become much more important when you get a little older.”
Chicago fans can probably recite a couple dozen instances in which Hjalmarsson limped off the ice in agony after a big shot block, only to return a shift or two later. While he insists all players have the same mentality, he admits he takes pride in his approach.
“I feel like with a hockey career, you never know how long you’ll play, so every season I approach it like it’s going to be my last one even if I have more years on my contract,” said Hjalmarsson, who has two years left on his contract at an annual cap hit of $4.1 million. “I want the crowd and everyone who’s watching to see that I am going all-in every game. That’s always been one of my goals as a player, to be playing all-in.”
That part of Hjalmarsson’s game will become apparent quickly to Coyotes fans, even if the shot blocks don’t sting quite as much as they used to.
“It hasn’t been a problem for a while,” he said. “Once I started playing with my shot blockers on my skates, it made a huge difference.”