Hjalmarsson and Hawks ready for fresh start
CHICAGO -- The Chicago Blackhawks had a number of players who needed a break from hockey after losing Game 7 of their first-round playoff series to the rival Vancouver Canucks.
Defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson was one of them. Mentally he was drained and physically he was aching after trying unsuccessfully to defend the Hawks' 2010 Stanley Cup title.
"I needed to heal a little bit," Hjalmarsson said following a recent team charity event. "It was a short summer last year, but I'll take that any day if we go all the way. Still, it's not too fun to go out the way we did, coming back from 0-3 and losing. It took a while to be happy again, but it's been a good summer. I feel like I'm in good shape and I just can't wait to get the season started."
That was the general feeling among all Hawks players in July at the annual fan convention. Unlike a year ago, when they practically dreaded the start of training camp, the Hawks are driven once again to get back to the top.
In fact, Hjalmarsson, who turned 24 in June, is back in Chicago full-time to train. He's not alone -- Hjalmarsson said he's currently skating and training at the Hawks' practice facility in Chicago with about 10 teammates, including Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Dave Bolland and Brent Seabrook.
They've all got their motivations for being there, but Hjalmarsson has to be one of the hungriest. His calendar year following the Cup celebration was interesting, to say the least.
Not long after Chicago's victory parade, he signed an offer sheet with the San Jose Sharks that was ultimately matched by the Hawks a few days later. That led to the departure of goalie and friend Antti Niemi, which inherently put more pressure on Hjalmarsson to prove he was worth the four-year, $14 million deal.
As if that wasn't enough, Hjalmarsson was also assessed a two-game suspension for a hit from behind on Buffalo's Jason Pominville in just the third game of the season. The hit gave Pominville a concussion and forced Hjalmarsson to vehemently deny accusations by a couple of Sabres that it was intentional and dirty.
Then there were the offensive numbers Hjalmarsson logged during 80 games of the regular season. Despite finishing with an impressive plus-13 rating -- third-highest on the team -- Hjalmarsson put up just 3 goals and 10 points. The 7 assists in particular led some to question whether he was worth the pricey contract.
It's no wonder Hjalmarsson felt the need to put last season to rest. After a longer offseason to recharge -- including a vacation to Croatia and a trip to Switzerland with teammates Marcus Kruger, Viktor Stalberg, John Scott and three Hawks prospects to take part in a training camp with Swedish Elite League team Lugano -- Hjalmarsson said he's now ready for a fresh start.
"Last year, everyone just pretty much showed up a couple of days before camp started because everyone just wanted to spend time with their families," he said. "I think everyone is more excited to get started this year."
The goal, once again, is to win the Stanley Cup. However, Hjalmarsson would also like to put up better offensive numbers as well.
"I always want to be a solid guy the team can trust shift after shift," he said. "We always want to try and get a point here and there, but that's something I'm hoping to do more -- at least over 20 points."
If he can, it would be the first time he surpasses 20 points in his brief NHL tenure, which includes two full seasons and parts of four. He has, however, gotten close -- even surpassing the 20-point mark in 2008-09 when combining his numbers from Rockford of the American Hockey League (52 games, 2-16-18) and the Hawks (21 games, 1-2-3).
He also approached the 20-point plateau in 2009-10 with the Hawks in his first full NHL campaign -- totaling 2 goals and 17 points in 77 games before adding 1 goal and 8 points in 22 playoff games.
"When I was younger, I was way more offensive," Hjalmarsson said. "I've been more of a role player here and I feel that my role is more to play defense, but I think I can contribute a little more offensively, too. (Brian Campbell) is gone, too, so hopefully I can contribute more."
Chicago's free-agent signings this summer could help him in that effort, as Bowman added three veteran free-agent defensemen -- Steve Montador, Sean O'Donnell and Sami Lepisto -- plus a pair of gritty forwards (Jamal Mayers and Daniel Carcillo) to go along with power forward Andrew Brunette.
The new faces are a welcome change, according to Hjalmarsson, who thinks the Hawks could position themselves for another legitimate run at the Cup this season.
"They brought in some grit and that's what we needed last year," he said. "We were missing that fourth line that could go in and just play real hard-nosed hockey. (The Cup) is obviously what we're aiming for. You never know how it will work out, but I think we have a good feeling coming into this season. We're just hungrier. That's the most important thing."