Hjalmarsson’s return gives Coyotes glimpse at blue line they envisioned

Jan 12, 2018, 10:34 PM
New York Islanders' John Tavares (91) fights for control of the puck with Arizona Coyotes' Niklas H...
New York Islanders' John Tavares (91) fights for control of the puck with Arizona Coyotes' Niklas Hjalmarsson (4) during the second period of an NHL hockey game Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
(AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Niklas Hjalmarsson prides himself on his durability. In the eight seasons he spent with the Chicago Blackhawks as a regular player on the roster, he missed a total of 32 games despite being one of the league’s top shot blockers and a shut-down defender.

He has already missed 26 games in his first season in Arizona, and the last 16-game stretch was pure torture.

“It was really frustrating,” said Hjalmarsson, who has been sidelined by a pair of upper-body injuries. “I had never been out for that long of a period. You get a lot of time to reflect and you start missing the guys.

“After a while, you almost don’t want to watch the games because you feel bad. They’re out there battling hard and you’re just sitting on the couch having a coffee.”

Hjalmarsson finally felt well enough to get off the couch and get back on the ice on Friday night. For the first time in 44 games this season, every member of the seven-defenseman rotation the Coyotes envisioned at the start of the season was available in their 4-2 loss to the Edmonton Oilers at Gila River Arena on Friday.

Hjalmarsson logged 19:53 of ice time paired with Jakob Chychrun, while Oliver Ekman-Larsson played with Alex Goligoski and Kevin Connauton played with Jason Demers. Luke Schenn was the odd-man out.

“We’re going to rely on them a lot,” coach Rick Tocchet said. “It’s a defense corps that when they’re all healthy, if they can step it up another level, we can compete.”

Tocchet said there will still be some experimentation since all the options are finally available, but he has a good idea what he can do with the seven players.

“You’re trying to get some offensive guys together, moving the puck and trying to get some goals from the back end,” he said. “You experiment, but you kind of know who’s going to get minutes out there.”

Hjalmarsson was a major offseason addition, coming over in a trade that sent defenseman Connor Murphy and center Laurent Dauphin to the Chicago Blackhawks. Like the rest of the team, he got off to a shaky start while adjusting to a new home, a new coaching staff’s system, and new teammates’ tendencies.

On Oct. 30, he suffered an upper-body injury at Philadelphia and missed 10 games. He suffered another upper-body injury Nov. 28 at Edmonton that sidelined him for 16 games.

“Coming to a new organization, you want to show your best foot forward and try to turn this thing around so it was hard,” Hjalmarsson said. “I’m excited to be back.”

While defensive lapses hurt the Coyotes in a blown two-goal lead on Friday, Tocchet liked what he saw from Hjalmarsson.

“Nik was good,” Tocchet said. “He was steady for us.”

Hjalmarsson said his timing was a little off after the layoff, but the possibilities with a healthy blue line intrigue him.

“If we can just play at our top level I think we have an unbelievable squad back there,” he said. “I think I can do better and maybe some of the other guys feel that way, too. We can definitely improve on the back end here and that’s something we’re going to focus on going forward.”

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