LAS VEGAS — Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson often can go unnoticed playing behind the team’s top pairing of Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith.
But even as the team struggled in January, Hjalmarsson remained one of the Hawks’ most dependable players. He easily would be in the top defensive pair on many NHL teams.
“Hammer is always very consistent in his game,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “I [have] thought it’s always a good trait to measure a defenseman by his predictability game in, game out. That’s Hammer.”
Talk to Hawks players and coaches, and you’ll hear more often than not that Hjalmarsson made the smart play, not the wrong play.
But don’t mistake his “predictability” for cautiousness. Hjalmarsson, who will play for Sweden in the Sochi Olympics, has looked to be more assertive in the offensive zone. He already has tied his career-high with four goals this season and has a career-best 19 assists.
Hjalmarsson also is tied for the league lead in shorthanded points with four. He leads all defenseman in that category, having tallied a goal and three assists.
“I’m trying to make more plays this year. I’m just trying to be more comfortable with the puck and trying to get more shots on goal, and if you can do that, you’ll be rewarded,” Hjalmarsson said.
His play in the defensive zone hasn’t suffered as a result. He wouldn’t be getting the accolades from Quenneville if that were the case.
In the Hawks’ 5-2 victory Wednesday over the Canucks, Hjalmarsson led the team with six blocked shots. He also logged the second-most ice time for the Hawks, playing 22:48. Keith was first at 25:36.
Hjalmarsson said playing with defensive partner Johnny Oduya, also his teammate on Sweden’s Olympic team, and the high praise from Quenneville have given him more confidence.
“I’ve been pretty good this year so far, but it’s always nice to hear the coach say that, too,” Hjalmarsson said. “But obviously I’ve been playing with Johnny for a long time, too. He’s been helping me a lot. I think we’re pretty good as a pair out there. It’s not just me that’s been doing the job.”
And with each game, Hjalmarsson feels even more emboldened on the ice.
He said the losing in January was tough but his confidence never wavered. He said he tries to bring that to the locker room even when things aren’t going well.
“I just have a lot of confidence right now,” Hjalmarsson said. “I’m having a lot of fun out there on the ice. It’s always more fun when the team wins, but [I’m] just trying to create energy on the bench, in the locker room, on the ice, everywhere you can help the team out. And I’m always trying to do my best when I go out there on the ice, and it’s been working pretty good so far this year.”