Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Hjammertime


Niklas Hjalmarsson warms up for a pre-season game

Niklas Hjalmarsson made a key deal this summer: he signed a $14M/4 year offer sheet with the San Jose Sharks. But Chicago felt it was too important to let the Swedish defenseman get poached away, and matched the offer sheet - further complicating the Blackhawks' off-season salary cap tango.

As a direct result, there was a touch less wiggle room on the roster, and the combined salaries of Chicago's top two defense lines adds up to $19.68M - that's 33% of the team's cap space. The fan-dubbed "Hjam Soup line" - Hjalmarsson and blue line partner Brian 'Soupy' Campbell - actually pull down more together than Norris-winning Duncan Keith and top-line mate, Brent Seabrook.

Needless to say, the expectations on the Hjalmarsson/Campbell pairing are high. Keith/Seabrook cannot continue to put in 30+ minutes each per night; and somebody has to step up to take the place of the team's top shot blocker, Brent Sopel, who was traded to Atlanta this summer. During the pre-season, both Hjalmarsson and Campbell stated that they were looking forward to taking on more responsibility on the blue line.

Then the pre-season happened. Campbell found himself out for the next few weeks with a sprained knee. Hjalmarsson found himself paired with rookie Nick Leddy.

The big issue is that Hjalmarsson so far hasn't shown the form that he exhibited late in last season: the form and the promise that made Chicago willing to pony up $3.5M for a defenseman who has not yet hit his prime. In fact, until the Buffalo game on Monday night, Hjarlmarsson was on the ice for every single goal that the Avalanche and the Red Wings scored in the team's first two games. His record so far this season, in just over 45 minutes worth of ice time, has him at a -4 rating.

The fans and the sports writers began pondering where, exactly, Hjarlmarsson's game had gone this summer. He must've given some thought to the same as well, because his play was looking more aggressive as the Blackhawks/Sabres game began.

Then "Hjammer" lived up to his nickname.

Hjarlmarsson's entire 15-minute PIM tally from this season stems from a single incident that happened last night in Buffalo: he unintentionally boarded Sabre Jason Pominville during the first period. Sabres teammate Ryan Miller spoke out later against the boarding, stating that the league needed to make an example of Hjalmarsson, to help get away from the idea that violence is part of hockey. See the video of the hit below:




Judging from the video, Hjalmarsson came in faster than he expected, and his shoulder hit Pominville at a bad spot along his back. Pominville's head slammed into the glass, and it was later announced that he had suffered a concussion.

The 15 PIM given for the play made Hjarlmarsson ranked 9th (out of 700+ players) in the league for PIM for the season. Of the eight players above him, 4 are on the penalty-riddled/fight-happy Anaheim Ducks, 2 Blues, Scott Hartnell (PHI), and Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond (NJ).

In comparison, Hjarlmarsson only put together 20 PIM in the entire 2009-10 regular season. (He added 6 more in the playoffs.)  He just isn't that kind of player.

It was his misfortune to be the first player this season who hit another player badly, intentional or not. After passing new headshot resolutions, and dealing with some late-season health issues from injured players (such as Marc Savard's concussion and Brian Campbell's broken rib), players certainly had to be aware that any bad or dirty plays would be under a microscope by the NHL.

Although Hjalmarsson has denied that there was any kind of intent, expressing regret for the incident, he had to have a league review call today. The NHL ruled that Hjalmarsson will be suspended for two days - which means he'll be back on the ice for Chicago just in time for the rematch against Buffalo, this time at the United Center. 

There is some silver lining to this incident, however. With both Campbell and Hjalmarsson gone, Chicago's defense pulled together on Monday night. Nick Boynton in particular stepped up so well that he was named one of the stars of the night. Here's hoping he remembers how good he can be and continues to play like that for the rest of the season. The defense gets a bit thin behind the top four, so the other D-men need to step up and be solid - no more so than the next couple of games without either Hjalmarsson or Campbell in the lineup.

Nick Leddy will get there; he's on a high-speed learning curve even as we speak. The others need to prove that they're at least as good - if not better - than the rookie.


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