Niklas Hjalmarsson's versatility huge plus for Hawks

The list of things Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson does well is a long one.

“He's always doing the right things, the small things that are always helping our team,” goalie Antti Raanta said. “He's making big hits, he's blocking shots, he's always playing PK (penalty kill) ... it's remarkable to watch what he's doing.”

Indeed it is, but one thing that often goes unnoticed is just how proficient Hjalmarsson has become at playing on his opposite-side — a left-hander playing on the right side.

When most defenseman go to retrieve a puck in the corner or along the boards, they simply send an outlet pass up ice or wing it along the boards using their forehand. No big deal.

Hjalmarsson often doesn't have that luxury. Much of the time he's forced to use his backhand to advance the puck out of the zone. And as anyone who's ever been required to use their non-dominant hand for any length of time, it's not an easy task, but ...

“It's something I've gotten used to since I started playing on the right side and it's been working pretty well so far,” Hjalmarsson said. “A lot of times I think opponents don't expect me to make a quick play up the ice on my backhand. It might surprise them every now and then.”

The 27-year-old defenseman moved over to the right side a few years back after the Hawks acquired his defensive partner Johnny Oduya at the trade deadline.

“It probably took 20 or 30 games to get used to playing on that side, adjusting to different situations and being able to control the puck on my backhand,” Hjalmarsson said. “If you're used to playing one side your whole life, it's hard to switch over.

“Up until two years ago, I played pretty much my whole career on the left side. Now, I can play either side. It's good for the coaches to have one more option if something happens to one of the other guys in the lineup.”

Hjalmarsson has become so accustomed to playing on the right that “It's weird playing on my left side; I usually play there once or twice a game, and being on the forehand, it's almost like you have to make a great pass every time,” he said with a laugh.

Forehand or backhand, right side or left, Hjalmarsson, who ranks 10th all-time among Hawks defenseman with a plus-66 rating, has earned raves for his play this season.

“Game in and game out, the one thing you look for in a defenseman is consistency — and that's him,” Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “Whether it's blocking shots, good stick, great gap, comes up with loose pucks, he does everything you want in a defenseman.”

But despite all those attributes, the one thing preventing Hammer from becoming an all-star on a regular basis is his lack of big — or at least semi-big — offensive numbers.

He admits playing the right side may play a part in that.

“Maybe in the offensive zone you can't really shoot as many one-timers as you'd want when the forwards are passing the puck up, stuff like that,” he said. “But I still like it,”

And he's comfortable with the fact that being counted on as an offensive weapon on a nightly basis isn't part of his job description.

“So far, I feel like I'm playing really good defensively,” he said. “I know we have so much offense on this team with all the good, skilled forwards.

“I know what job I'm supposed to do on this team and what I can contribute to its success — and that's playing really good defense.”

But it has to bum him out a bit not to be joining his five Hawks teammates two weeks from now in Columbus for all-star weekend, right?

“It's tough to say,” said Hjalmarsson, who has 1 goal and 8 assists this season. “Most of those all-star guys, they're good offensively and defensively, too. I've got to put up some more offensive numbers to be considered.”

Raanta agrees.

“That's the thing about the All-Star Game — it's usually how many points you have and what you can do in the offensive zone,” Raanta said. “You don't have defensive defensemen — you don't see those things in an All-Star Game.

“I think if you think about who is the best defensively D-man, Hammer has to be there.”

Quenneville couldn't concur more.

“In today's era, a lot of the guys who get consideration for the top defensemen, Norris Trophy candidates, they have to have output offensively,” he said. “He loses that consideration.

“Maybe they can come up with a best defensive defenseman. With that criteria, he'd be all right.”

And that right there is the furthest thing from a backhanded compliment.

• Follow Mike's Hawks reports on Twitter at @dhspellman.

Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson (4) battles for the puck with Dallas Stars right wing Erik Cole (72) during the third period of an NHL hockey game in Chicago, Sunday, Jan. 4, 2015. Associated Press
Niklas Hjalmarsson may only have 1 goal and 8 assists this season, but he's more than comfortable knowing he's doing a solid job as one of the Hawks' best defensemen. Associated Press

Blackhawks game day

Minnesota Wild at the Xcel Energy Center, 7 p.m. Thursday

TV: Comcast SportsNet

Radio: WGN 720-AM

The skinny: While the Blackhawks had a day off to stew about their 2-0 loss to Colorado at the United Center, the Wild, who have lost 8 of their last 10 games, had one very interesting practice Wednesday. It included stick slamming, an expletive-laced tirade by coach Mike Yeo and ended with Yeo leaving the ice early in disgust. So, how will Yeo's theatrics affect tonight's game? Stay tuned.

Next: Edmonton Oilers at Rexall Place, 8:30 p.m. Friday

— Mike Spellman

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