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Blackhawks’ Niklas Hjalmarsson ready to improve on offense

The Blackhawks are expecting more from Niklas Hjalmarss(left). | Bill Smith~Getty Images

The Blackhawks are expecting more from Niklas Hjalmarsson (left). | Bill Smith~Getty Images

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Updated: November 16, 2011 9:45AM

Believe it or not, defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson made his Blackhawks debut five seasons ago.

It was more than halfway through the 2007-08 season — Feb. 8, 2008, to be exact — and teenagers Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews were revitalizing hockey in Chicago.

Since then, Hjalmarsson has been praised by Dale Tallon and Stan and Scotty Bowman. He has been lauded often for his defensive prowess by Joel Quenneville, and he has blocked more shots in parts of four seasons than some players will get in front of their entire careers.

But it’s time to see more from Hjalmarsson.

His proverbial table seemingly has been ready for a while. With Brian Campbell gone, he’ll be counted on more than ever.

“I’m 24. I’m not young and promising anymore,” Hjalmarsson said. “I’ve got to live up to my potential, and hopefully this year I can do that.”

Hjalmarsson is in the second year of a four-year, $14 million contract, which he got after the Hawks matched the San Jose Sharks’ offer sheet for him during the summer of their salary-cap purge. He then got off to a bad start last season, which included a minus-9 rating in 12 games and a two-game suspension for an illegal hit.

The fact that Hjalmarsson recovered to finish with a plus-13 rating last season is a testament to his defensive abilities and perseverance, especially after the short offseason. But his 10 points left much to be desired, especially for a player with a considerable contract.

Expectations are even higher for him this season because he’s the No. 3 defenseman behind Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook.

“The offensive side of things with [Hjalmarsson] is something we’re always looking for improvement,” Quenneville said. “Whether it’s more direct plays or him being comfortable jumping up in the play, I know we talk about that. He makes some indirect plays sometimes when there’s a direct play.

“The thing he gives us is so much confidence in his positioning defensively and reliability and dependability in our end. [But] there’s room for growth with direct plays and some offense, be it off the point or off the rush.”

In others words, instead of sending the puck around the boards, the Hawks would like to see him take shots or make a pass to maintain their puck possession.

The Hawks won’t try to make Hjalmarsson something he’s not. They’ll still need him in defensive situations as Nick Leddy adjusts in his second year and Steve Montador, Sean O’Donnell and Sami Lepisto settle in to their new team.

But the offensive potential is definitely there. Hjalmarsson has a solid shot, which has steadily improved since his arrival.

“That’s one thing, I didn’t have that many shots [64] last year,” said Hjalmarsson, who will start the season with Seabrook as the Hawks’ shutdown pair. “I’ll try to make more plays, but not try to do too much. There’s a fine line there.”

On paper, the Hawks blue line looks deeper than last season. But a more complete Hjalmarsson could make them elite.

“I’ve got more to show people here in Chicago,” he said. “I’m just looking forward to the season.”

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