The career of one of the best defensive defensemen of the modern era is coming to an end. Craig Morgan of AZ Coyotes Insider reports that Arizona unrestricted free agent Niklas Hjalmarsson is set to retire after 14 NHL seasons. Morgan notes that the humble veteran is unlikely to make a formal announcement, but multiple sources have confirmed that Hjalmarsson’s NHL career has ended.
While Hjalmarsson is still a capable pro, this move should not come as much of a surprise. The 34-year-old has been in decline over the last few years, more or less since leaving the Chicago Blackhawks in 2017. This season, he refused to waive his No-Movement Clause ahead of the trade deadline, preferring to stay with his family in Arizona rather than compete for a Stanley Cup. It seems that his three titles with Chicago were enough for the respected veteran, and when that drive is gone the career doesn’t last much longer. Recently, rumors emerged that his family would be moving back to his native Sweden, again a sign that Hjalmarsson was ready to move on as well.
While Hjalmarsson never received the accolades of other top defenseman or even his other championship teammates with the Blackhawks, he was quietly one of the best defensive players in the NHL over much of his career. A player whose numbers don’t do him justice, Hjalmarsson played with elite hockey IQ and vision, rarely getting caught out of position. Hjalmarsson could single-handedly shut down an offensive rush or stymie a power play. An incredibly effective shot blocker, Hjalmarsson’s defensive zone presence was the stuff of nightmares for the opposition in his prime. While only ever contributing modest offense, not much of puck-mover, and not a noticeable physical presence, it didn’t matter – Hjalmarsson was an effective top-four defenseman all the same. A dependable player who ate minutes and took on difficult match-ups throughout his career, including 137 career playoff games, Hjalmarsson was a key piece of every team he played for.
While not unexpected, Hjalmarsson’s departure from Arizona is yet another confirmed absence from the Coyotes’ 2021-22 blue line, which is set to look very different. Arizona had seven defensemen play 40+ games this past season. Heading into the off-season, four of those were unrestricted free agents: Hjalmarsson, Alex Goligoski, Jason Demers, and Jordan Oesterle. A fifth, captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson, has since been traded. Hjalmarsson is now confirmed not to return and veterans Goligoski and Demers are not expected to return either. Depth defensemen Aaron Ness and Jordan Gross are also UFA’s and may not re-sign. Jakob Chychrun will lead a new unit that looks to include Shayne Gostisbehere, Ilya Lyubushkin, Kyle Capobianco, and rookie Victor Soderstrom. Chychrun will need to channel Hjalmarrson and other former teammates if he want to play the well-rounded game needed to become a bona fide No. 1 and leader of a young defense corps.