Niklas Hjalmarsson says Chicago feels like home to him and his wife. It should be for the next six years.
The Chicago Blackhawks announced Wednesday that Hjalmarsson, their 26-year-old defenseman and two-time Stanley Cup winner, agreed to a five-year contract extension. Hjalmarsson has one year left on his current contract.
"I'm really excited with the extension here and I'm really looking forward to next season, and that me and my wife get to stay in Chicago for six more years," Hjalmarsson said during a conference call Wednesday afternoon. "I love the city. I love the people in Chicago. They're really friendly and playing in the United Center in front of 23,000 people every game, it's really inspiring. On top of that, we have a good team that can compete for the Cup every year. I really wanted to stay in Chicago and I'm really glad I got the opportunity to do that."
Hjalmarsson could have played out the final year of his contract and perhaps signed a more lucrative long-term contract as an unrestricted free agent next summer, but he indicated leaving Chicago was never under consideration. The Blackhawks picked him in the fourth round of the 2005 NHL Draft and have used him regularly in their top four on the blue line since the 2009-10 season.
"To imagine playing for a different team is tough for me because I feel so much for the city and for the team," Hjalmarsson said.
"Yeah, maybe I could have gotten more somewhere else, but I make a lot of money so I don't really have to think about that too much. I'm just happy over the situation."
Chicago general manager Stan Bowman is too. Hjalmarsson's contract extension ensures that 14 players from last season's Cup-winning roster are signed for at least the next two seasons.
Goalie Corey Crawford signed a six-year extension on Monday.
To imagine playing for a different team is tough for me because I feel so much for the city and for the team. - Niklas Hjalmarsson
"Part of the plan is determining which of your players are key and critical to the success of your team and then making sure you have them for a long time," Bowman said. "You look at the role that Niklas has played on our team, he's a warrior."
Bowman said locking up Hjalmarsson to a long-term extension was one of his offseason goals because he thinks the best is still ahead for the Swedish defenseman. Bowman said Hjalmarsson is the ideal complementary player to the offensively skilled players Chicago has up front and on the back end because his strong points are his ability to penalty kill, defend and block shots.
"When you have a player and he really hasn't reached his best years yet -- I think he's just coming into his prime at this point -- you want to keep someone like that," Bowman said. "He's been improving each year and I expect he will continue to do so. For that reason it's an easy decision to commit to him."
Hjalmarsson had five assists and a playoff career-best plus-10 rating in 23 playoff games last season after he had 10 points and a career-high plus-15 rating in 48 regular-season games. He feels the next step in his evolution as a player is to improve his offensive game (56 points and a plus-48 in 306 career regular-season games), but he won't do it at the expense of what he already does well.
"I know I'm really strong at the defensive end," Hjalmarsson said. "I think I had a really good year playing with Johnny [Oduya] and hopefully I can continue pretty much what I did last year. I thought I had a really good year last year and I don't think I have to try to be someone else or try to force stuff that I maybe don't have. I'm going to try to build on what I did last year and try to do it even better."