As the respective conference finals continue, the Blackhawks are (once again) watching from home. There are a number of players that might be headed out of town this summer, either as a free agent or by trade. But one player specifically has disappointed for two straight seasons, and shouldn’t be back in Chicago next year.
It’s time for Niklas Hjalmarsson to find a new address.
While he was missing from action, we discussed whether or not the Blackhawks actually missed Hjalmarsson from the lineup. The verdict at that time was that the team was playing better without him, especially once Johnny Oduya was added to the roster.
In the postseason, Hjalmarsson was one of many Blackhawks that needed to play better for the Hawks to get out of the first round. He was on the ice for six even-strength goals, tied with rookie Marcus Kruger and Nick Leddy for third on the team behind only Oduya and Bolland (seven each).
But Hjalmarsson was also on the ice for two Coyotes powerplay goals in the six-game series. The eight total goals against while Hjalmarsson was on the ice was tied with Brent Seabrook for the third-worst total in the series, behind Oduya (nine) and Bolland (ten).
Of course, plus-minus isn’t the greatest indicator of an individual performance. But Hjalmarsson was minus-three in the series, which was among the worst on the team; only Kruger was lower (minus-four), and of the Hawks that played in all six games, Andrew Brunette was the only other Hawk player to be as bad as Hjalmarsson.
If a six-game playoff series isn’t a big enough sample size, looking at Hjalmarsson’s regular season performance leaves more to be desired.
Of the Blackhawks four primary defenseman last season – Duncan Keith, Seabrook, Leddy and Hjalmarsson – the total numbers don’t do Hjalmarsson any favors.
First, consider the role Hjalmarsson has evolved into on the Blackhawks as a penalty killer. He was on the ice for 23 powerplay goals by a Hawks opponent. Only 49 players in the NHL were on the ice when at least 23 powerplay goals were scored by an opponent last year. Of those 49, only five – Nate Thompson (Tampa), Zach Bogosian (Winnipeg), Fedor Tyutin (Columbus), Tom Gilbert (Edmonton/Minnesota) and Hjalmarsson – played in fewer than 70 games during the 2011-12 season.
If we take that number a step further. In 69 games, Hjalmarsson was on the ice short-handed for 163:34. Opponents scored a powerplay goal once every 7:07 that Hjalmarsson as on the ice on PK duty. Compare that to Keith (7:42) and a vastly improved Seabrook (9:11). That isn’t a good number for a guy that’s supposed to be a primary penalty killer.
But this isn’t a one-year issue for Hjalmarsson. In 2010-11, Hjalmarsson also watched too many goals go in the net while on PK. In 80 games, opponents had 23 powerplay goals while Hjalmarsson was on the ice. His short-handed ice time was higher (thanks to being healthy for 11 additional games), totalling 172:09.
Once again, Hjalmarsson was more frequently on the ice for an opponent’s tally while with an advantage than the Hawks’ other top penalty killers. His average short-handed time on ice between goals in 2010-11 (7:29) was lower again than Keith (8:38) and Seabrook (7:44).
[Leddy and Brian Campbell were not primary penalty killers, so we didn't compare them to Hjalmarsson for the short-handed part of the discussion. But, for the sake of disclosure, Leddy's average was 6:15 in 2011-12, while Campbell's was 8:41 in 2010-11.]
Taking a step back from penalty killing duty, the numbers for Hjalmarsson look even worse.
Examining total goals against and total ice time during the 2011-12 season shows that Hjalmarsson was a victim too many times. He was on the ice for 88 total goals (65 even strength, 23 powerplay). Opponents scored once every 15:49 that Hjalmarsson was on the ice last season.
Looking at the Hawks other top three defensemen, that number is far too low. Even the developing Leddy, who has become a whipping boy for critics, had a significantly better ice time average between opponent goals (16:55) than Hjalmarsson. Indeed, Leddy’s average was better than Keith (16:27), while Seabrook led the way (17:22).
And those numbers were with Hjalmarsson averaging only 27.1 shifts per game. Leddy (28.0) averaged almost a full shift per game more than Hjalmarsson, while Keith (31.1) and Seabrook (30.7) were asked to carry the load once again.
That average represents a significant step back for Hjalmarsson from the 2010-11 season. In 11 additional games, Hjalmarsson was on the ice for three fewer opponent goals the previous year. His average ice time between goals (17:23) was actually better than both Keith (16:24) and Seabrook (15:45) that season.
[The most striking number from the analysis was Campbell's performance in 2010-11. In 65 games, he was on the ice for only 59 opponent goals, averaging a staggering 25:19 between goals.]
The fact is, Hjalmarsson is regressing as a player. And it’s hurting the team.
Certainly, defenders of Hjalmarsson will point to his ability (willingness) to block shots. He ranked 32nd in the NHL with 142 blocked shots last season, and was among the league leaders before missing time.
There are two responses to that defense.
First, his blocked shot total cannot be denied. It’s a strong number. But blocked shots are most effective if the puck doesn’t eventually end up in the back of the net. Obviously that wasn’t the case far too often with Hjalmarsson in the ice last year.
Secondly, there were far too many times during the 2011-12 season that Hjalmarsson missed a blocked shot that led to a goal. Far too many times did we see him shy away from shots last season. A missed attempt at blocking a shot effectively provides an opponent with a courtesy screen as the shot travels.
Certainly there should be an asterisk next to any goals against numbers because everyone in and out of the organization admits the goaltending in Chicago must improve, but other leading shot blockers in the NHL were able block shots more effectively than Hjalmarsson last year.
The other asterisk that needs to be placed on Hjalmarsson’s numbers was the influence on his game that the change from Campbell to Leddy made on the overall performance of the team. It’s been well documented that the gamble made by Hawks GM Stan Bowman to move Campbell came prematurely, and that Leddy did not step into the void well enough.
But with a ring in his pocket and a $3.5M price tag, the organization and fans wanted/needed Hjalmarsson to take another step forward. Leddy’s development was only part of the consideration in moving Campbell; any assumption that Hjalmarsson could shoulder more of the burden on the blue line proved to be just as futile as hoping Leddy could become a 22 minute per game defenseman.
As the Blackhawks evaluate their roster this summer and consider their plans for the 2012-13 season, it’s time for Bowman to find a new home for Hjalmarsson. He has evolved into an overpaid number five defenseman, which can be replaced in free agency for cheaper than the cap hit he’s making in Chicago. And certainly there will be a team out there looking for a shot-blocker on the trade market this summer.