Why Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson Are Crucial to Blackhawks' Cup Chances

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Why Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson Are Crucial to Blackhawks' Cup Chances
Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

The Chicago Blackhawks may be headlined by their superstars, but that's not the only reason that Joel Quenneville's team has a reasonable chance to repeat as Stanley Cup champions this year.

The Blackhawks also have quality depth up front and on defense. The depth forwards include Brandon Saad and Andrew Shaw. Saad may be able to elevate his reputation to that of a star within a year or two, while Shaw is a player who can agitate opponents while still making key contributions on offense and defense. 

Veteran center Marcus Kruger is another depth player who makes a difference.

However, it's on the blue line where the Blackhawks may have their highest quality depth. Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson just may be the best No. 2 pairing in the NHL.

Oduya and Hjalmarsson are currently playing for Team Sweden in the Olympic tournament, and they have helped their home country get to the Olympic semifinals. Despite earning a spot on the Olympic team, Oduya and Hjalmarsson are not stars.

They are solid all-around defensemen who can carry the puck, jump into the offensive play when it's required and, most important, play shutdown defense.

That's vital for the Blackhawks. Head coach Joel Quenneville can feel just as comfortable putting Oduya and Hjalmarsson on the ice as he does putting the tandem of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook out to stop the opponent's top lines.

Oduya and Hjalmarsson are clearly not as dangerous on the offensive end as Keith and Seabrook, and they may have a hard time matching their teammates on defense over the course of a season.

However, in a given game, they can carry the load. If Quenneville needs to depend on Keith and Seabrook for their offense, that's when he may be willing to ask Oduya and Hjalmarsson to man the shutdown role.

The Blackhawks forwards recognize how important the defense is to their team's success. 

"I love our defense. They've been huge for us the past two seasons," Patrick Sharp told The Hockey News. "They all skate well. They all move the puck and with the forwards that we have in our locker room, we like to get it with speed and they do a good job of getting it to us. Our defense (has) been the key to our team this year."

Hjalmarsson is having a stellar year. He has scored four goals, 19 assists and has a plus-13 rating. Hjalmarsson is averaging 21:18 of ice time per game, but he has a minus-3.3 Corsi rating. While that figure appears to be something to be concerned about, the Oduya-Hjalmarsson duo is at greater risk than other No. 2 defensive pairings because they see so much time against the best lines in the NHL.

Oduya has not been quite as productive as Hjalmarsson. He has scored three goals, 10 assists and has a plus-seven rating. He is averaging 20:15 of ice time per game, but like Hjalmarsson, he has a minus-3.8 Corsi rating.

Quenneville has seen a greater willingness from Oduya and Hjalmarsson to jump into the offensive play this season, something he is happy to see.

"We've probably gotten a little bit more offense from them than we saw last year, whether it's [Hjalmarsson] or [Oduya]," Quenneville told Brian Hedger of NHL.com. "They've been more of a threat in the offensive zone."

If the coach is willing to put Oduya and Hajalmarsson out to defend against the opponent's top line and he is giving them more of an offensive opportunity, does that mean that the Blackhawks have defensive pairs No. 1 (Keith and Seabrook) and 1A (Oduya and Hjalmarsson)?

That would not be accurate. Keith (three goals, 45 assists, plus-19) and Seabrook (six goals, 28 assists, plus-24) are simply too dangerous from an offensive perspective.

But their experience and success helped the Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup last year, and they could help them raise it again this year. 

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