‘Just really, really good’: Coyotes’ Nik Hjalmarsson was born to play defense
GLENDALE, Ariz. — Understandably, nothing gets fans on their feet in a hockey arena like a highlight reel goal or a diving save by the goalie. But what’s to be said about those whose contributions are more subtle?
Arizona Coyotes defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson might be the team’s best case study for that. He played 82 games in 2018-19, joining Clayton Keller as the only two Coyotes to do that last season. He also scored zero goals, the only player in the NHL last year to play every game and not score a goal. But don’t mistake what he can bring to the ice:
“He’s as good as I’ve seen or played with as far as anticipating where pucks are going to go and getting his stick or skates or body on pucks,” Coyotes defenseman Alex Goligoski said. “Just ask our forwards in here that go against him in practice every day. He’s just really, really good defensively.”
Hjalmarsson is entering his third season with the Coyotes after spending 10 years with the Chicago Blackhawks and winning three Stanley Cups along the way. His first year in Arizona didn’t go the way he hoped as he missed time with injury and played only 48 games.
Last year, he was a contributor all season.
“I felt like I had a little bit of a bounce-back year,” Hjalmarsson said. “I felt I had a tough first year here with a lot of injuries. And I felt when I played, I wasn’t really like the way that I was playing in a lot of games.
“Maybe it took me some time to get comfortable to a new city and a new organization, too, a new system, and everything. And [I] felt last year, I was much more happy with the way I played and the way the whole team played.”
‘BORN AS A DEFENSEMAN’
Hjalmarsson ranked second in the NHL last year in blocked shots with 187, behind New Jersey’s Andy Greene. Of those, 50 were on the penalty kill — the third-highest total in the league behind Greene and Ian Cole.
He also had the eighth-most defensive zone starts in the NHL last year.
As Goligoski said, Hjalmarsson’s work with his stick in the defensive zone is a big part of what separates him from other players. He credited playing with the Swedish national team as a teenager and later playing for Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville as reasons why he developed those abilities.
“[Entering the NHL] I quickly figured out that the defensive part of my game is way more stronger than my offensive game, so I really started to work heavily on that and [Quenneville] has always been pressing having an active and good stick,” Hjalmarsson said. “And I felt like when we were playing there in Chicago, I think our whole team, especially the D men, it was tough to pass pucks through us. We were close on the opponents and things like that.
“[It’s] something that I’m trying to remind me of before every single game to stay really consistent on that, and just try to be good in that part of the game, because that’s where I earn my money. I should be one of the best, and I want to be one of the best in that part of the game.”
Maybe part of his proficiency at the defensive position comes from having always been a defender first.
“I remember I tried to play forward a couple times, I ended up right in front of the goalie anyways,” he said. “So I think it’s just a natural thing. In every single sport I’ve played, you know, floor ball, soccer, I’ve always been as close as I can to my goalie … I guess I was born as a defenseman.”
Last summer, Minnesota Wild forward Jason Zucker said on the Spittin’ Chiclets podcast that Hjalmarsson is one of the most underrated defensemen in the NHL when he was asked who the toughest players are to go against (warning: explicit language).
“I hate playing against that guy,” Zucker said. “He’s so skilled. He’s got an unbelievable stick all the time. He’s always right in your face. And he’s such a good shut-down guy. And nobody ever notices him because he’s not on the stat sheet as much.”
Head coach Rick Tocchet said there’s more offense in Hjalmarsson’s game that they feel could be found with better offensive talent around him, “But let’s face it,” Tocchet said. “He’s a defender. He’s a great PK guy. He’s a proud guy and he hates getting scored against. I love those type of guys.”
Tocchet and Goligoski each complimented the way Hjalmarsson carries himself off the ice.
“He’s a low-maintenance guy. I don’t have to worry about him,” Tocchet said. “If we’re doing a drill and we ask [for] a structure on the ice, he does it. So that’s why he’s got the A on his chest.”
Goligoski said Hjalmarsson’s voice carries weight in the dressing room, and Hjalmarsson can be a good example for all players — not just those who are young. Tocchet said Hjalmarsson already made a good first impression on newcoming winger Phil Kessel.
“Phil Kessel just came in and after two weeks, he really goes, ‘I like this Hjalmarsson. What a leader this guy is,'” Tocchet said. “So that’s the kind of impact that he has on players.”
Some of that can probably be attributed to the fact that he’s entering his 13th season in the NHL. He hopes he and the team can build off of what went right last year. In the meantime, whether Hjalmarsson is under the radar or not, his teammates at least know his importance to the Coyotes.
“I mean for me, he’s probably one of the easiest guys I’ve ever played with,” Goligoski said. “Just a real steady player. So good defensively. Just a guy any team would always want on their team. So I don’t have enough good things to say about him.”