If the Norris Trophy were simply about defense and only defense, Niklas Hjalmarsson would have to be a contender every season. Hammer is in the bottom 20 of all NHL d-men in the amount of shifts he doesn’t get that start in the offensive zone. He takes on the toughest competition every night, and has done so for the past three years at least (allowing Duncan Keith to become Fireball Mario). Last year, he was on the ice for the third least amount of goals against per 60 minutes despite those obstacles. And having just turned 28, he should be right in the heart of his prime as a d-man (we can only hope). Hammer might enter the season as the player with the least amount of questions about him. He’d be manning 75% of the other teams’ top pairing.
But we still need to find a way to have a stick laying on the ice that he can swat away dismissively on the few occasions he scores.
Last Season: 82 games, 3 goals, 16 assists, 19 points, +25, 44 PIM, 53.7% Corsi Percentage (0 Relative), 50.4% Corsi Competition
Playoffs: 23 games, 1 goal, 5 assists, 6 points, +6, 8 PIM, 48% Corsi Percentage (-6.2 Relative) 52.3% Corsi Competition
Last season was basically the same one that Hammer has given the Hawks the previous two seasons, after he spent the two seasons before that wandering around some imaginary zoo that only he could see. He blocked a ton of shots, played the other teams’ top lines, and ground into dust physically, waited for Johnny Oduya to find his form in the spring, and was the backbone of the Hawks’ defense. Hammer also had to flip from side to side a little more than previous seasons, as when Oduya got demoted midseason and he found himself going back to his natural side to play with Seabrook at times. That versatility isn’t something you see mentioned a lot, but it is there. And it will probably come in even more handy this season.
Hammer’s possession numbers obviously took a hit in the playoffs, but A) he was being rolled out there against Getzlaf and then Stamkos for 13 games and that’s going to do in anyone’s numbers and B) he saw far more minutes in the playoffs than he ever had, averaging 22 minutes just at even-strength throughout the run. Fatigue had to have kicked in somewhere, one would think.
’15-’16 Outlook: The only concern about Hammer is what did the spring take out of his legs? Super Nintendo Hjalmers has never depended on his feet that much, but he also doesn’t have that much wiggle room to go from someone who can squeeze out enough time to make a play to get the Hawks out of the zone to one that’s going to get buried before he can, which might turn him into the tennis ball machine he was in his dip years that just flings the puck out of the zone like a monkey hurling his own shit. That’s not all that likely, but something to watch for.
Other than that, it’s really about who Hammer plays with and that has nothing to do with him. He might have to play free safety for Trevor Daley, which is akin to playing free safety for the Bears in that there’s a whole lot coming at you because you aren’t getting much help from anyone else. He may be paired with Keith to give the Hawks the most likely duo to deal with the other teams’ top threats and give everyone else a softer landing. He could pair with Seabrook (my bet, at least early in the year) to give the Hawks the best defensive pairing possible, and to let Keith still drive the offense with less interference (and reduce Daley to a third pairing role, though it would be with either Hejda or Rundblad so uh… yeah…. Tums please).
But the thing with Hjalmarsson is you know what you’re getting. No reason to think the Hawks won’t again.