Just as any business looks for ways to ensure profitability, the Chicago Blackhawks look for the same out of its players. Many risks were taken during the 2010 off-season, unknowing of what was to come. It was simply the price to be paid of a long-run to a Stanley Cup and a couple years of salary inflation.
Now in the midst of a season in which the Blackhawks have yet to carve an identity, we can start to measure some of the off-season moves that were routinely debated.
Last year the emergence of Niklas Hjalmarsson’s development became a very versatile piece to the Blackhawks success. Predictably so, it would be easy to assume that should Hjalmarsson continue his growth the position output would grow as well.
Many critics, fans, and front office officials assumed it would either be Niklas Hjalmarsson or Antti Niemi to stay and that any other option was financially “out-the-door”.
Still in discussion is the move the Blackhawks made that would walk away from Niemi, and invest a future in Hjalmarsson. Understandably, Niemi not only provided a stable backstop, but also brought a humbled appreciation for success in a locker room filled with youth.
While the path was chosen to go with Hjalmarsson, the Blackhawks now sit in the midst of the 2010-11 NHL season and playoff race just to have a shot at a title defense.
The beginning of the season proved gut-wrenching, after injuries continued to plague the team. Hjalmarsson would not finish on the positive side of a plus/minus rating until the 14th game of the season.
Last year Hjalmarsson finished plus-9, while he currently is posting a plus-5 rating after late success. While there are defensemen out there who thrive in the offensive zone just as much, if not more then on the defensive side of the puck, Hjalmarsson’s success is measure by goals allowed.
In a system where the defensemen are depended on to transition the puck, the ability to score is not necessary. As of late Hjalmarsson has continued to show reasons why the Blackhawks decided to keep him in Chicago.
While Niemi continues to stifle the Blackhawks in head to head appearances (3 wins), that is about all Niemi has been able to do.
Throughout the 2010-11 season, Niemi has seen not only a rise in GAA (2.85) and drop in Save Percentage (.908), but also an increase in losses (13). In all of last season Niemi amassed only 7 losses, while San Jose only lost 20 games all year last season.
Going forward it can be imagined that coaches and fans will continue to expect more from there second year, full-time defenseman.
Rightfully… they should. If the Blackhawks expect to make the post-season they will need Hjalmarsson to play at the next level at which scouts say he can.
Kyle Wahlgren is a former featured columnist for Bleacher Report and is owner of CSA Sports Apparel at ChicagoSportsAuthority.com!