This won’t make for easy reading for Hawks fans. We aren’t here to tell you what you want to hear.
We’ve made the case all season that if there were a “Rod Langway” Award, that is if the best defensive defenseman were given an award along with or in place of the Norris–where the d-man who just accumulates the most points wins–, then Niklas Hjalmarsson would probably collect it. In a season where the Hawks have struggled so completely defensively, that can be painful to admit.
Let’s go over the numbers again. Hammer starts the 5th-highest percentage of his shifts in the defensive zone among blue-liners in the league. But whereas most of those d-men are merely trying to build a ditch and just let not disaster strike, Hjalmarsson and his partner Oliver Ekman-Larsson have been able to push the play the other way as well as anyone even though they have the farthest to go. Even with the dungeon shifts, Hjalmarsson has the ninth-best relative xGF% in relation to his team in the league. When it comes to just goals-against, Hammer has the best mark relative to his team in the league. Even though he starts in his own zone as much as anyone, he’s hardly giving up any chances. He’s the ultimate tease.
The temptation is to toss the responsibility onto OEL, as he is one of the better puck-movers in the league. And some of OEL’s numbers do improve away from Hammer’s while the latter’s sink. They collect a 51.3% Corsi-share together, where OEL is at 52.4% without Hammer and 50.4% vice versa. However, it’s the opposite when it comes to actual shots, further showcasing how Hjalmarsson limits chances. OEL’s scoring chance-percentage is actually worse away from Hjalmarsson, and Hjalmarsson’s high-danger chance share is a few points higher away from OEL than it is when they’re together. Hammer is helping OEL just as much as the other way around, which is certainly the big reason the Coyotes made this trade in the first place.
That shouldn’t be an indictment on Connor Murphy, though some will take it as such. Hammer looked as off the pace as anyone in 2017 while the Hawks were getting aerated by the Predators. The thought was after three long playoff runs, the miles on the odometer had taken a toll that was just not going to be undone. Perhaps Duncan Keith‘s wear was having a greater effect on Hammer than could be realized, which has been borne out in subsequent seasons.
It was thought that Hjalmarsson’s style of being more stationary, more physical and taking literally thousands of flung rubber to his body would see him decompose pretty quickly. And it still might. It was thought Connor Murphy could fill the role with greater mobility, and he still might. The signs on the latter are encouraging, as Murphy has had to make do with Carl Dahlstrom and Slater Koekkoek and various other rodeo clowns. But that’s still a very hard sell to a lot of watchers.
As for now, it’s probably just best to marvel at the recovery Hjalmarsson has made and the uniqueness of what he’s accomplishing this season. It’s better to trade a player too early than too late, which is the decision Stan Bowman made. But sometimes when you do that, the payoff doesn’t come for a little longer than you guessed.
Game #69 Preview Suite