Maybe you don’t notice the way Niklas Hjalmarsson sees one stride into the future by reading an opponent’s body angle, able to stay with him and steer him toward the boards as he tries to cross the blue line.
Maybe you don’t catch it when Hjalmarsson patiently waits, and waits, and waits, for an opponent to look down at the puck for just a fraction of a second, perfectly timing a sneaky poke check to knock it away and break up a zone entry.
Maybe you don’t see it as Hjalmarsson limps around the dressing room like an old man after a game, a fresh new set of puck-sized bruises dotting his legs.
But Hjalmarsson’s teammates do. They see all of it — the anticipation and sacrifice on the ice, the preparation and consequences off the ice. Hjalmarsson is a member of the Blackhawks’ vaunted core, a three-time Stanley Cup champion and one of the very best defensive defensemen in the NHL. Yet he toils in the shadow of the flashier members of that select group — Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith, and Brent Seabrook — and rarely is mentioned in the same breath by fans and pundits.
But his teammates know.
“Defensive defensemen probably don’t get the recognition or the attention of the guys that put up points and bring a little more offense to the game,” said Hawks coach Joel Quenneville, a stay-at-home blue-liner for much of his own NHL career. “But I think there’s a lot of appreciation from the organization, the coaches, teammates, defense partners, and goaltenders for what he can do, and how he plays the game. He’s what you want in a defenseman. You look around the league, he probably does that job as quietly and as efficiently as anybody.”
Hjalmarsson has what’s known as a “good stick” in the hockey vernacular, but it’s more about the hands, feet and head that are attached to the stick. His smooth skating — particularly while backpedaling — and his ability to read an oncoming attacker and anticipate his next move allow him to maintain a usually perfect gap, always a stick length away from even the fastest offensive talents in the league.
“He seems to know where the puck’s going to be, and any time a guy bobbles it or doesn’t handle it as smoothly as he wants, he seems to be right in his back pocket taking it from him and sending us the other way,” Trevor van Riemsdyk said. “I think that’s why he’s so good; we get the puck out of our end so quick whenever he’s out there.”
It helps that Hjalmarsson uses an unusually long stick, pushing the league maximum of 63 inches. When you skate swiftly and carry a big stick, you can break up a lot of zone entries, even when matched up against the other team’s best players, as Hjalmarsson has been for years — first with partner Johnny Oduya, now with two-time Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith.
“It’s definitely something that I’ve learned a lot from Joel,” Hjalmarsson said. “He’s been pressing on that pretty much ever since the first practice when he got here. I have pride in having a good stick and not letting any passes go through me. … And I think a lot of players get surprised because I play with a really long stick, so my reach surprises them. They don’t think I’m going to be able to reach the puck.”
His fellow defensemen marvel at how efficient he is, with little wasted motion or wasted energy.
“Being a defenseman is pretty tough, and I’m sure he’s working hard and all that, but he makes it look pretty easy,” Brent Seabrook said. “It’s fun to watch him play when he’s in his own zone, and just being able to get sticks on everything.”
Hjalmarsson was first paired with Keith during the stretch run last season, and he’s starting to realize that with Keith drawing so much attention, shooting lanes are starting to open up for him. He’s been shooting more lately, finally breaking through with his first goal of the season Saturday night in Los Angeles. He’s also picked up four assists in the last 10 games.
The offense is great, but that’s not Hjalmarsson’s game. His game is to keep pucks out of his own net — whether it’s with his positioning, his stickwork, or his body. Nearly every game, Hjalmarsson is spotted wincing in pain and lurching toward the bench after throwing his body in front of an opponent’s slap shot. But he never misses a shift, ever the “Swedish warrior” in Oduya’s words. No Hawks player spends more time on the massage table before and after games, always lying face up and tossing a well-worn baseball in the air while he tries to get his weary legs ready for the next game.
It’s a sacrifice many players make, nothing out of the ordinary in the tough-guy world of hockey. But few do it as well as Hjalmarsson. In fact, few defensemen in the league do almost anything on the ice quite as well as Hjalmarsson. And while few notice outside of the Hawks’ inner circle and the die-hards, Hjalmarsson’s work — and work ethic — are highly valued by those who see the most.
“He’s been a huge part of this team,” Andrew Shaw said. “Without him, I don’t think they would have had so much success. When you’ve got guys like [Keith] and [Seabrook] playing so well offensively, it kind of pushes him to the back burner, I guess. But he’s an asset to this team, and everyone on this team loves having him on our side.”
Said Hjalmarsson: “Players in my category don’t get noticed that much. But it’s nothing I care about at all. As long as I’m a part of winning three Cups, I don’t really care about how much attention I get. And hopefully we’ll get at least one more before I’m done here.”