|(Photo by Bill Smith)
Over a combined 101 games in the regular season and playoffs, Blackhawks fans were treated to some brilliant individual campaigns. As the team recuperates after a long Olympic season, here's a deeper look at some of the season's standouts.
Niklas Hjalmarsson, who turns 27 years old today, enjoyed as much of a breakout season as a defensive defenseman can have, statistically. Not only did he lead the team in blocked shots and shorthanded ice time (a category the Swede has led for three consecutive campaigns), staples of his skill set and mentality, but he also managed to put up career numbers offensively. Looking further into the numbers reveals the extent to which Head Coach Joel Quenneville trusted Hjalmarsson to handle the toughest defensive assignments. (Stats courtesy of NHL.com and ExtraSkater.com.)
The image accompanying the hockey dictionary definition of "sacrificing the body" is likely to be that of Hjalmarsson, grimacing in discomfort after intercepting a puck traveling at upwards of 90 miles per hour. His team-leading 157 blocked shots during the regular season accounted for 15.3 percent of the team's total, and he's ranked in the team's top two in the category every season since 2009-10, a testament to years and years of this thankless undertaking. The Swede would be the first to claim that pain is temporary, except when it's slightly more than fleeting, as he found out on May 5, when he took a puck to the neck from countryman Jonas Brodin of the Minnesota Wild. Doctors advised him to hit the mute button, which he did for two weeks. But neither his silence nor the neck brace he wore for additional protection stopped him from doing his job: His 57 blocked shots during the postseason still leads all skaters in the playoffs, despite the third-round exit.
Possibly the only surprising facet of Hjalmarsson's game this season was the strength of his offensive production, which reached career highs in all categories, including goals, assists, points and shots on goal (98, a nearly 50 percent increase from his previous personal best). Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that he acccomplished those numbers while seeing virtually no power-play time. What Hjalmarsson lacks in natural playmaking ability, he makes up for in instinct—knowing when to pinch in the offensive zone and when to back off, and trusting in the forwards to be ready for a pass or a tip-in. As Hjalmarsson reaches his peak years, he's showing that he can be a multi-dimensional blueliner when called upon.
Hjalmarsson's team-leading shorthanded ice time of 2:49 per game hardly identified him among the league's heavyweights, but that can be attributed to the fact that the Blackhawks were again one of the least-penalized teams in the NHL this season. Hjalmarsson was on the ice for a remarkable 57.2 percent of the team's shorthanded spells, which ranked 12th in the league and 10th among blueliners. That's also Hjalmarsson's highest percentage in three seasons, during which he has unquestionably emerged as Coach Quenneville's most reliable penalty-killer.
While Hjalmarsson's emergence on the penalty kill might have been expected, part of his role as a shutdown defenseman necessitated that he play big minutes at even strength as well. His 18:20 of even-strength ice time, which was good for 36 percent of the team's total, ranked second on the team only to minutes monster Duncan Keith. Below, a look at Hjalmarsson's emergence:
Quenneville's defensive system depends on predictability and strong blue-line partnerships, especially in the top four. Hjalmarsson's successful move to right defense a few seasons ago may not have been intended as a permanent shift, but his current configuration has allowed for a strong partnership with fellow Swede Johnny Oduya, also a natural left defenseman. The two have formed a shutdown pair that has not only freed Keith and Brent Seabrook from tougher assignments, but also gained recognition in its own right, leading to Olympic call-ups for Team Sweden earlier this year. In Sochi, Hjalmarsson and Oduya reprised their club performances while helping Tre Kronor win a silver medal.
A crucial part of playing tough minutes involves handling pressure in the defensive zone, and no blue-line pairing in the NHL has done that more steadily than Hjalmarsson and Oduya, who started less than half of their shifts in the offensive zone this season—a team low. (Note that zone start percentage disregards neutral zone shifts.) Hjalmarsson's 49.6 zone start percentage isn't among the league leaders overall, due to the Blackhawks' ability to keep the puck out of their own end, but his relative percentage to the team's zone starts, -10.1, ranks third among league defensemen, with Oduya not far behind in fifth place (-9.7).
One way of evaluating quality of competition is to consider the amount of ice time each opponent enjoys, with the understanding that coaches rely heavily upon their best players for offensive production, and that defensemen will generally be matched up against forward units, not opposing defensive pairs. By that metric, Hjalmarsson ranked first on the team this season, taking the ice against forwards who averaged 27.3 percent of their team's ice time—fourth-best in the league at his position. (Oduya ranked seventh with 29.7 percent TOI share of opposing forwards.)
Defensemen can't do it all on their own, however, so credit must be given to the trios in front of Hjalmarsson and Oduya. Examining shared ice time between Hjalmarsson and Blackhawks forwards, the usual suspects emerge: