Do the Chicago Blackhawks Really Miss Niklas Hjalmarsson?

Do the Chicago Blackhawks Really Miss Niklas Hjalmarsson?

On Feb. 15, we looked at the impact Niklas Hjalmarsson makes on the Chicago Blackhawks lineup. At that point, he had missed three games (all road losses), and the Hawks had been outscored 11-5 in those three games.

There was a valid argument made at that time that three games is too small of a sample size to determine the legitimate impact Hjalmarsson is making on the Blackhawks.

So, now that Hjalmarsson has missed 11 of 12 games since Feb. 7, let’s look at how the Hawks have done without him.

Do the Blackhawks really miss Hjalmarsson?

Despite losing the first three games Hjalmarsson missed, the Blackhawks now boast a 6-5-0 record in his absence (obviously winning six of their last eight without him). More than one player determines a win or loss, though, so using the team’s record as a benchmark isn’t appropriate.

But there are some telling statistics that paint an interesting picture of Hjalmarsson’s relative importance on the lineup.

  • Shots Against: During the 2011-12 season, the Blackhawks are allowing 29.3 shots on goal per game, which ranks 12th in the NHL. While the assumption might be that removing the team’s leading shot blocker from the lineup would hurt that number, reality has contradicted logic.
    In the 11 games Hjalmarsson has missed, the Blackhawks are allowing 29.2 shots on goal per game. There has been little/no difference in the number of shots getting to the Hawks’ netminders in the absence of Hjalmarsson.
  • Penalty Kill: During the 2011-12 season, Hjalmarsson has ranked second on the Hawks’ roster in short-handed ice time per game, skating an average of 2:29 on penalty killing duty. For the year, the Blackhawks are killing 77.8 percent of their opponent’s penalties, which ranks 28th in the NHL.
    In the 11 games without Hjalmarsson, the Blackhawks have killed 24 of 32 penalties, or 75 percent. The percentage might be lower, but not by enough that there has been an incredible difference in the Hawks’ ability to kill penalties without Hjalmarsson.

Those two statistical categories would figure to be show the greatest difference while a defensive defenseman like Hjalmarsson is out of the lineup.

It is very telling that the Blackhawks have replaced Hjalmarsson and Steve Montador with a rookie (Dylan Olsen), a guy they buried for months at a time this year (Sami Lepisto), an ancient warrior (Sean O’Donnell) and, in the last two games, an acquired veteran (Johnny Oduya) and there has been almost no negative impact on the team’s performance in those two areas.

But there is one more statistical area to look at, and this area the does indicate a significant difference in the Hawks’ performance.

  • Goals Against: In their first 66 games this season, the Blackhawks are allowing 2.89 goals per game, which ranks 22nd in the NHL. However, in the 11 games that Hjalmarsson has missed, the Hawks have allowed only 26 goals, or 2.36 per game. That indicates a 0.53 goal per game improvement without Hjalmarsson.

What’s more, when you place the Blackhawks goals against into the context of the 11 opponents they have faced without Hjalmarsson, the improvement is even more impressive.

Here are the 11 teams the Hawks have faced without Hjalmarsson, their goals per game average and where they rank in the NHL in goals per game this year:

Feb 10 @ San Jose 2.73 12
  11 @ Phoenix 2.55 19
  14 @ Nashville 2.78 9
  16 @ NY Rangers 2.73 11
  18 @ Columbus 2.27 28
  19 vs St Louis 2.49 21
  21 vs Detroit 3.09 3
  25 @ Los Angeles 2.09 30
  26 @ Anaheim 2.48 23
  29 vs Toronto 2.94 8
March 2 @ Ottawa 2.96 7

Four of the 11 games have been against teams that rank among the top 10 in NHL in scoring, and two more have come from the league’s upper-half. Certainly the Kings have had a bad season, but they have scored nine goals in three games with Jeff Carter in the lineup (the first of which was a 4-0 Los Angeles win against the Hawks).

In four of the 11 games Hjalmarsson has missed, the Blackhawks have allowed only one goal, and they allowed two in another (in Nashville). The fact that there has been a significant improvement in the Hawks’ goals against average is a statistic that should raise an eyebrow or two.

When the Hawks lost Hjalmarsson, a top-four defenseman on the roster based on his ice time, many thought replacing both Montador and him would lead to an extended period of defensive problems.

That has not been the case.

The baseline reality that fans, and ultimately Blackhawks management, need to realize is that Hjalmarsson is not a top-four defenseman, and the impact of his absence on the Blackhawks’ performance has been sufficiently compensated for by a 21-year-old rookie. Indeed, the numbers now indicate that the Hawks haven’t missed him at all.

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