By Topher Scott
One of my favorite things to do is watch players who are under the radar but they’re still…OH SO GOOD. Guys that don’t get the fanfare like the stars and aren’t consistently on the scoresheet, but they are just as vital to a team’s success as the players putting up the points.
Because hey, at the end of the day, most players that play at the highest levels have to play that role at some point. And if you want to play at the highest levels, you have to be good at things that go unnoticed to the general public of fans.
And with a combination of more increasing role definitions, not wanting to play stars huge minutes through a long season, and not wanting to get star players hurt…the role of the unheralded penalty killer is becoming more and more of a necessity at the highest levels.
My favorite unheralded penalty killer is Niklas Hjalmarsson. This guy is unreal.
He’s not perfect. Some of his analytic stats aren’t great. But his defensive savvy and guts when watching him on video are a huge reason why the Arizona Coyotes were number one in the league last year on the penalty kill. I’ll walk you through a few examples of what I mean.
When it comes to killing penalties, there are a few concepts that are extremely important. First off, your team will probably have success if you don’t allow the opposing team to set up inside the zone. You do this by disrupting their entry and being able to retrieve pucks…make plays…and get clears.
Check this play out by Hjalmarsson:
Been watching a lot of PK video gearing up for the season. Wanted to see why @ArizonaCoyotes were #1 in the league last year. Two words:
Making plays with the puck…and making reads without it…this guy is an absolute STUD. This play was my favorite. Wow. pic.twitter.com/ErXuqjdGtV
— Topher Scott (@TopherScott_) September 6, 2019
This play takes an incredible amount of hockey sense…and an incredible amount of guts. A few things to look at on this clip:
Watch Hjalmarsson…even as he’s being barreled down on, he SHOULDER CHECKS to see the location of the forechecker and his support player. At that high of speed, that’s incredible.
Watch how hard he works to retrieve the puck, making sure he gets there first to make a play. With a forechecker coming down on him that fast, a lot of players would let the opposition get inside position and settle for playing defense. Not Hjalmarsson. He wins the race and makes the play.
I also love how he’s not afraid to make a play to the middle of the ice. It’s possible that their team PK breakout system has the support guy using the dot as their release, but even still that is a big time play no matter the system. BIG TIME.
Let’s check out another clip:
To be a great PK player, you have to:
1. Be able to anticipate where the puck is going and know when to be aggressive.
2. Win puck battles.
3. Have the courage and ability to make a play w/ little time and space.
This clip shows his head, compete, and skill pic.twitter.com/ZTybZ1zakm
— Topher Scott (@TopherScott_) September 6, 2019
To be successful as a penalty killer, you need to do the following things well:
-Anticipate plays and know when to be aggressive to kill the play and when to be more passive and keep teams to the outside.
-Compete and win puck battles.
-Make plays with the puck with little time and space.
Hjalmarsson does all three in the clip above:
Watch him win two stick battles right off the draw. But even more impressive, he makes the play to his winger afterwards (and it doesn’t even look like the winger is ready). It’s one thing to win a battle…it’s another to make the play with the puck with little space after.
Watch him anticipate where the pucks is going once it’s up at the point. He recognizes that the Calgary defenseman has one play (rim) so he cheats below the goal line. Not only that, he knocks the puck down out of midair to create the turnover.
Watch him take his time to turn around and clear the puck 200 feet. Many defenseman would alligator arm this puck for fear of getting hit…but not Hjalmarsson. He corrals it, takes a look, and rips it down the ice.
Let’s face it:
Scoring goals is extremely tough nowadays. With that, coaches want more than ever to throw their top players out for offensive zone draws and power plays. That can be tough on the ego for players that play on the bottom two lines or second and third D pair.
These players have to be willing to accept and thrive in the role of starting in their defensive zone or playing on the kill. Hjalmarsson literally started 70% of his shifts on faceoffs starting in the Dzone last year.
Niklas Hjalmarsson has made a living off playing an unheralded role, and there’s a reason Joel Quenneville went bananas when “Hammer” was traded from Chicago. He has the smarts and the willingness that have allowed him to have an incredible career as a professional hockey player…and a huge reason why the Coyotes had the top PK in the NHL last year.
I’m looking forward to seeing more of him as the season draws near, make sure you young defenseman watch him and pick up a thing or two as well!