After finally sweeping up the confetti of the 2010 Blackhawks season, one of the seemingly hundreds of players left without a contract at that time was defensemen Niklas Hjalmarsson, whose stay-at-home game allowed Brian Campbell to roam free, and was instrumental in the team's penalty killing unit. Stan Bowman, in his infinite brilliance, decided to publicly state his fearlessness of offer sheets from other teams for his players, only to have Hjalmarsson sign a 4-year, $14 million offer sheet with the San Jose Sharks, which was consequently matched. It was at least a full million dollars more than anyone had envisioned Hammer receiving, and ultimately cost the Hawks one, if not both of Andrew Ladd or Antti Niemi under the salary cap. Given Hjalmarsson's rapid development however, it was seen as a tough but necessary decision, and the trajectory he was on should more than pay for that contract. What a difference a year makes.
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Contract Status: Signed through 2014 (Unrestricted), $3.5 million annual cap hit
Positives: Aside from the 2-game suspension Hammer served for his blindside hit on Jason Pomminville early in the season, he appeared in every game for the Hawks, which is a significant accomplishment not only for a team besieged by injuries to key players, but also for the game Hjalmarsson plays. Hjalmarsson led the Hawks and was 13th league-wide in blocked shots, something that certainly takes its physical toll, especially in the immediate wake of a prolonged playoff run. And after a wretched start to the season where Hammer was seemingly on the ice for every goal scored against (as a result of some clownish pairings with regular partner Brian Campbell out), he managed to drag himself up to having the 2nd best +/- on the team for defensemen. While a lot of that can certainly be attributed to Campbell, Hjalmarsson himself certainly settled down at least a little bit when Campbell returned.
Negatives: Undoubtedly the biggest thing in this category for me is that all of last year, we lauded Hjalmarsson for always being willing to take a hit to ensure the puck got directly where it was supposed to during a breakout. Whether it's the wear-and-tear of doing so that's gotten to him, or the forwards simply weren't back in time or in position for him to look toward, that patience we observed last year was nearly non-existent for the 2010-2011 season. It got to the point where it was something that was scoutable for the opposition, and forecheckers and blueliners were cheating toward the wall to cut off the inevitable blind firing of the puck up the wall, and hemming the Hawks in their own zone.
And perhaps it was being drunk from Kool-Aid sipped from a large silver chalice, but around here we also had the ill-conceived notion that Hjalmarsson's offensive game could grow a bit given the way he was developing, perhaps even to the point of being used on the power play- how wrong we were. Though Hammer has in his arsenal a slide-along-the-offensive-blueline-with-the-puck move and resultant firing of a low, hard shot from the middle of the ice through traffic that give coaches a real veiny, triumphant one, it was seemingly only reserved for the most special of occasions. Whether it was out of deference to the other more-offensively oriented defensemen or just lack of confidence in his own offensive abilities, we rarely saw that type of thing and it resulted in a 7 point drop off from his total last year. Additionally, on the topic of reluctance, after the suspension, Hammer seemed more than a little hesitant to deliver the bone-crunching hits we've seen him be capable of.
Defining Moment: In a game the Hawks had to have (which was seemingly every game after the Ides of March) against Tampa Bay, who aren't exactly known for their ferocious, aggressive forecheck these days, Hjalmarsson took a delay of game penalty which naturally led to what would be the game winning goal, as the Hawks were so bereft of offense at the time they couldn't solve Mike Smith. Mike fucking Smith.
Outlook: At this time last year, Hjalmarsson was viewed as an indispensable member of the Hawks' defensive corps, one that was worth slightly overpaying for. Now, having witnessed more careless clearing attempts than one would think humanly possible in a season, Hjalmarsson is a prime candidate to get moved elsewhere if the Hawks are looking to swing a deal to get a sizable forward or another center- which they should be. Hjalmarsson in all likelihood could have very well been traded at this year's deadline were it not for a provision in the CBA that forbids the trading of a player whose offer sheet was matched for one year.
In the past we'd often spake of Hammer's ability to play safety/centerfield when paired with Campbell as the ingredient that allowed Campbell to do what he does best with confidence, but after seeing the way Campbell changed his game this year and dragged Hammer's stat line back from the neither-realm, that ability might have been a bit overstated. While any team would be loathe to give up on a young defensemen with that size and the patience he'd exhibited prior to this year, the fact of the matter is that if his primary job is to be Soupy's safety net and get pelted by pucks, there are far cheaper options out there, and the Hawks have other pressing needs. While most of us would like to see Hjalmarsson's game come back to what it should be in a red sweater, do not be surprised in the least if he's packaged on draft day with a pick and sent elsewhere.
Final Grade: C-. Perhaps this is excessively harsh given his stat line, but the numbers also further argue just how dependent on Campbell Hjalmarsson was this season, and the dreaded eye test tells an entirely different story. The fact of the matter is Hammer regressed this year, specifically at the expense of one of, if not the most valuable parts of his game. And due to his salary, which admittedly should have never been that high to begin with, the Hawks now have some serious decisions to make regarding his expendability as an asset and how possible it is for his game of a season ago to return.