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Niklas Hjalmarsson: ‘I’m playing like it’s my last contract’

Niklas Hjalmarsson attempts to block a shot; he leads the Blackhawks with 2.2 blocks per game. (AP Photo)

EDMONTON, Alberta — Ask Niklas Hjalmarsson about the pain he deals with on a regular basis, and you’ll always get the same answer — a sheepish sigh, a macho shrug, and an earnestly modest line about how he’s hardly the only one stepping in front of flying frozen rubber on a regular basis.

“It’s not that bad, not at all,” the Blackhawks defenseman said. “There’s other guys on other teams. It’s not just me. There are guys all over the league that play exactly like I do. I don’t think I’m tougher than anyone else.”

Others, of course, disagree. Teammates marvel at Hjalmarsson’s ability to withstand punishment; support staff joke that he’s held together with duct tape and chewing gum; and reporters catch him limping through the dressing room on obviously tender feet and aching ankles night after night. Even his coach, Joel Quenneville, a grizzled defenseman himself, regularly shakes his head in wonder and calls Hjalmarsson a “warrior.”

That knack for finding his way into shooting lanes and that willingness to sacrifice himself for the good of the team is part of what makes Hjalmarsson so effective, and as good a stay-at-home defenseman as there is in the league. But it’s also why he needs a few more days off than most players. Why he spends more time on the massage table than most players. Why he probably feels the weight of the 567 career regular-season games and the 124 career playoff games more than most players.

There surely will be long-term aches and pains that linger far beyond the end of Hjalmarsson’s hockey career. And he’s well aware that the next time he slides in front of a slap shot — standing, kneeling, crouching, lying flat on the ice, whatever it takes — it could have a lasting impact, both on and off the ice.

But Hjalmarsson’s not playing the long game here. You don’t will yourself to stick your foot in front of a 90-mph-plus slap shot by worrying about how that foot will feel at age 40.

“Ever since I was young, [I’ve] just focused on this contract as my last contract,” he said. “That’s what’s going to help me push myself to play my best every game, every season. That’s how I look at it. I’m playing like it’s my last contract. You never know what’s going to happen.”

Hjalmarsson is signed through the 2018-19 season on a five-year, $4.1-million contract that looked like a steal when it was signed and looks better in hindsight every year. He’s only 29, and despite all the wear and tear on his body, he likely isn’t going anywhere. That “last contract” mindset is more of a mental trick — a way to encourage him to go all-out — than a prediction.

“He’s as good as there is in the game as far as positioning himself and taking away shooting lanes, blocking shots, or paying the price,” Quenneville said. “And his commitment to doing whatever he can to defend and keep the puck out of his net is as good as anybody in the game.”

And that style (and quality) of play is why whenever Hjalmarsson asks for a practice or a morning skate off, Quenneville never hesitates to give it to him. Hjalmarsson and Marian Hossa (and to a lesser extent, Duncan Keith) are the only Hawks who regularly get so-called “maintenance days.”

“He knows his body,” Quenneville said. “He knows whether it’s his feet or other areas, from blocking shots or playing the way he plays, that we tax him in some big minutes and tough minutes. He has a good feel for that, and usually he has some issues he has to deal with.”

On the ice, Hjalmarsson has taken a different role. After switching back and forth between the right and left sides against his preference, Hjalmarsson has settled in back on his favored right side with 20-year-old Swede Gustav Forsling after two years of playing alongside Keith on the top pairing (he did play with Keith on Saturday night with Forsling scratched). Quenneville went so far as to deem Forsling “a young Hammer,” though Hjalmarsson took issue with both the idea that Hjalmarsson shares Forsling’s offensive gifts and the idea that he’s no longer young.

“It’s sad Joel is calling me old now,” Hjalmarsson said with a smile.

Well, old enough to warrant an occasional day off to rest his weary bones. Old enough to know his body and to know the risks. And old enough to play every game like it could be his last.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com
Twitter: @marklazerus