Niklas Hjalmarsson heard some of the rumors, but not to a large degree. The former Blackhawks defenseman wasn’t spending a lot of time on the internet reading up on his potential fate. He figured he’d still stay put in Chicago.
“But when my agent called me about the 10-team list, I understood it was serious. Stan [Bowman] wouldn’t ask for that unless they made up their mind already,” Hjalmarsson said via conference call on Saturday. “That’s when it hit me that I’m probably not going to put the Hawks jersey on anymore.”
Indeed, Hjalmarsson’s next jersey will be that of the Arizona Coyotes, who acquired him in exchange for defenseman Connor Murphy on Friday. Hjalmarsson’s departure marks the end of the line for another Blackhawks core player, and this one is jarring in how it will change the team’s defense.
Speaking of change, Hjalmarsson faces a lot of it himself now. Sure, there’s the obvious change for a guy who’s played his entire career in one place. It’s new surroundings and a new team, on which he knows former Blackhawks teammate Antti Raanta and fellow countryman Oliver Ekman-Larsson.
But the Coyotes have dealt with a lot of upheaval lately. Goaltender Mike Smith is gone. So is veteran Shane Doan. On Thursday, head coach Dave Tippett and the Coyotes parted ways.
“They’re on a rebuild, a lot of new faces, lot of changes,” Hjalmarsson said. “It’s tough to know what to expect but I think they’re a hungry organization that wants to win like other teams. I’m looking forward to try to contribute with playing my game, just try to get the organization back in the playoffs.”
Hjalmarsson should find chemistry with Ekman-Larsson – the two were teammates in the Winter Olympics in Sochi – and Hjalmarsson will likely play a bigger role with the Coyotes. Arizona will probably look to Hjalmarsson a lot during its rebuild, given his Cup-winning history.
The first 24 hours were full of mixed emotions of Hjalmarsson. With his limited no-move clause, he was always a likely candidate to be moved from a Blackhawks team laden will full no-move clauses. He’s turning a page, but he won’t forget his time in Chicago anytime soon.
“I’m trying to always be a positive guy,” Hjalmarsson said. “I spent my whole 20s in Chicago, 10 unbelievable years. I didn’t think I’d win three Cups. Hopefully I can get one more before my career is over. I had the best time in Chicago, enjoyed every single year, playing in front of the best fans in the league. I’ve been spoiled. Now it’s time for me and my family to move on and seize the opportunity in Arizona and create some new fond memories.”
Coach Joel Quenneville stood in the United Center hallway, summing up what had been a difficult Friday.
“Very emotional deals,” he said on Saturday morning, as Day 2 of the NHL Draft commenced. “A lot to process there.”
Indeed, the Blackhawks had a busy and difficult day on Friday, trading defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson to Arizona and swapping Artemi Panarin and Brandon Saad in a deal with the Columbus Blue Jackets. Quenneville was seen by media leaving a coaches meeting in between the Hjalmarsson and Panarin/Saad trades on Friday morning and he wasn’t at the Blackhawks’ table on Friday, unusual for the opening night of the draft. But he said his absence wasn’t about the trades.
“Not at all,” he said.
Still, as Quenneville said, big moves are a lot to process, even for a team that’s done its share of shedding players since the 2010 offseason. General manager Stan Bowman said Friday was filled with, “high emotions… when you make some difficult decisions.” Jonathan Toews said on Friday night that, “everyone’s kind of shocked” by recent events, including Marian Hossa’s loss. Toews added he was wary of saying the team was better today, out of respect for departed players.
“It’s hard to sit there and say that without sounding like you’re being disrespectful to two teammates you care for and know were huge parts of the team,” he said.
We talk about the business side of hockey all the time. You make the tough decisions and then you move forward. But there’s a human element to all of this that’s easy to forget. Players, especially those who are with an organization for a long time as Hjalmarsson was, make their impact on and off the ice. Teammates and coaches are spending endless amounts of time together, and those bonds, coupled with what they all go through during regular seasons and Stanley-Cup runs, endure. Saying goodbye is difficult.
For Quenneville, seeing Hjalmarsson leave was very difficult.
“Well, certainly Hammer, he’s one of those heart-and-soul guys and was instrumental in winning some championships for us. You feel for him and what he meant to his team and his teammates and fans here and the city of Chicago. He’s one of those guys that you have an appreciation to watch and see how he competes and knowing what he fights through to stay on the ice in a lot of games. He’s a heart-and-souler. Those guys are hard to see go,” Quenneville said. “Bread Man wasn’t here long enough to really get that consistency over term. But Hammer really did give a lot to the organization. And we are very appreciative of the Bread Man, because he could wow us and entertain us and a great kid, as well.”
Still, there’s the positive side. Quenneville and Toews are thrilled to have Saad back in the fold. Toews and Saad had great chemistry, the first time around and Quenneville said he’ll put those two together to start the season – “I know that [Patrick Kane] finds a way to make it happen, no matter who’s playing at center or on his left. It really adds a one-two punch that hopefully we get consistency and predictability in that area,” Quenneville said.
Saad should also help fill at least some of the void left from Hossa.
It’s another offseason during which the Blackhawks are feeling the losses, professionally as well as personally. You process, you deal with the sting and then you proceed. That’s the business.
“As a coach, we’re in the short-term business, we’re thinking about now,” Quenneville said. “So we’re going to do everything we can to better ourselves right now and looking to win today. And that’s our challenge and that’s what we look at.”