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Blackhawks’ Hjalmarsson is finally pinching in

Niklas Hjalmarsson

Niklas Hjalmarsson

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Updated: December 9, 2013 11:01AM

It’s not that defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson was afraid to pinch in, lacked confidence in his shot or didn’t think he could be helpful on the offensive side of things. He just had other things on his mind.

“A couple of years ago, I pretty much thought about defense only, and no offense at all,” Hjalmarsson said.

Thing is, that mentality doesn’t really jibe with coach Joel Quenneville’s system. The Hawks are front-loaded with several dynamic finishers at forward, but the offense is built around an active defense getting those guys the puck — stretching defenses with long breakout passes through the neutral zone, joining the rush, maintaining puck possession in the offensive zone and firing away from the point.

And after four seasons of building a reputation as one of the most reliable defensive defensemen on the team, Hjalmarsson is finally starting to join the fun. Through 16 games, he has a goal and seven assists — on pace for about 36 assists, more than double his career high. Last season, he had only eight assists in 46 games.

Hjalmarsson, 26, said as he gets older, he gets more confident in his ability to recover defensively if he chooses to be aggressive offensively. Having a steady stay-at-home partner in Johnny Oduya doesn’t hurt, either.

“The coaches have always tried to push me on that side of my game,” Hjalmarsson said. “They always tell me to try to participate a little bit more offensively. I think I’m just getting more comfortable with the puck. I’ve been here for a couple of years now, and you just get more comfortable as you rack up the years here. I’m just feeling confident in my game.”

He’s hardly alone. Duncan Keith is tied with reigning Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban of the Canadiens with 12 assists through 16 games (it should be 13, as Keith created the play that led to Patrick Sharp’s third-period goal Wednesday night against the Jets). Keith had two assists in the Jets game and has at least one in five consecutive games. He’s on pace for 61 assists, six more than he had in his Norris-winning season of 2009-10.

Meanwhile, Brent Seabrook has a goal and seven assists, taking advantage of his booming shot, and Nick Leddy has two goals and six assists, exploiting his speed.

“It helps, no question about it, when our [defensemen] jump in the play and give the forwards the puck,” Sharp said. “As forwards, we want the puck at all times. They’re the key to our team game. They’re always in the rush.”

Some of it is just shooting more and letting the forwards clean up the rebound — be it off a skater, off the goalie or off the backboards. Keith, a power-play point man, is averaging about three shots on goal per game — one more than last season. That, combined with his natural passing ability — his precision slap-passes from the point are among the best in the league — is a big reason why he’s among the top 10 in the league in assists, forwards included.

For others, such as Hjalmarsson (who’s still averaging about one shot per game), it’s about getting more involved in the offensive zone, rather than simply holding the line and waiting for the opposition to transition.

Defense always comes first. After all, Quenneville was largely a stay-at-home defenseman during his NHL career. But when the defensemen can be responsible and aggressive, creating offense for their team while limiting it for the opposing team, that’s when the Hawks are at their best.

“It’s important,” Keith said. “Obviously, teams play such good defense now that it’s important to have the defense involved in the play and get up as much as we can to alleviate some of that pressure on our forwards.”


Twitter: @marklazerus

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