Niklas Hjalmarsson starts new chapter of his career with Coyotes
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GLENDALE, Ariz. — They don’t give Norris Trophies to stay-at-home-defensemen who are more likely to hurl themselves in front of a slap shot than to deliver one, more apt to prevent a goal than score one. The glory goes to the Duncan Keith types, and the spotlight favors the booming shots and big hits of the Brent Seabrooks of the world.
But no matter what happens in his 30s, no matter when he finally hangs up his puck-dented skates for the last time, Niklas Hjalmarsson will indisputably go down as one of the best defensemen in Blackhawks history.
“I almost get chills when you say that,” Hjalmarsson said. “You don’t really think about stuff like that when you’re in the moment, in your career. You’re just thinking about the next game. But we had a group that definitely did something special, and I know I was a part of it. So I’m very proud of it.”
Only seven Hawks have their name on the Stanley Cup three times, and Hjalmarsson is one of them. But like so many of his teammates before him, Hjalmarsson’s Hawks career ended abruptly and prematurely.
After a second straight first-round playoff exit, the Hawks wanted to get younger, and they wanted more cost certainty down the road. They also, according to multiple sources, were concerned that Hjalmarsson’s punishing, shot-blocking style meant that whenever his decline began, it would be quick and precipitous. So they sent the 30-year-old Hjalmarsson to Arizona for 24-year-old Connor Murphy.
Hjalmarsson was as surprised as everybody else.
“Yeah, I definitely didn’t think I was going to be traded, anything else would be a lie,” he said. “But you know what you sign up for when you sign a contract, and being with the Hawks 10 years, I’ve seen a lot of people go. So I guess it was my turn.”
The trade made for a hectic summer. He and his wife, Elina, found a house in the Scottsdale area via FaceTime with a realtor. Reality truly set in when they flew to Chicago at the end of the summer to pack up and move.
The Hjalmarssons are now settled in the Southwest. But the transition hasn’t been quite so smooth on the ice. The Coyotes are 0-7-1 after falling to the Hawks 4-2 on Saturday, and Hjalmarsson — an alternate captain — has struggled to adapt to first-year coach Rick Tocchet’s systems after nearly a decade under Joel Quenneville.
“I’m used to playing a certain way for a long time, and I honestly thought it was going to be easier to change and adapt to a new system and stuff,” Hjalmarsson said. “But I haven’t really been too happy with the way I’ve played, even though it’s starting to feel a little bit better. As a competitive guy, you get a little frustrated when you don’t figure it out right away. But I’m going to work hard to be able to be the same type of player I was in Chicago.”
It’s a type of player the Hawks miss. Murphy, like Hjalmarsson, has been a work in progress in his new city. And the Hawks are giving up a whopping 36.8 shots per game, second-most in the league.
“He was always a warrior-type guy,” Quenneville said. “Did everything he could to keep the puck out of the net and was hard to play against.”
It’ll take time to become that player again with the Coyotes. And who knows, maybe at 30, with a decade of physical punishment behind him, he might not ever be able to reach those levels again. His future in Arizona is just being written. But his legacy in Chicago is secure, forever etched in silver and in Hawks lore.
“I’m not too down about [the trade],” he said. “I had a great 10 years in Chicago, and I’m always going to be connected to that city, and especially to the guys that I won three Cups with. That special bond will always be there.”
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