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Ekman-Larsson and Hjalmarsson a perfect fit?

The addition of Niklas Hjalmarsson to the Coyotes blueline will completely change how the defense pairings look, but is a top-pairing role the best place for him?

World Cup Of Hockey 2016 - Semifinals - Europe v Sweden Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Arizona General Manager John Chayka left his mark in Chicago at this year’s draft. The biggest impression he made was before the draft floor even opened when he traded for one of the core members of a three-time Stanley Cup Championship team.

Swedish defenseman Niklas Hjarmalsson is on his way to help bolster the veteran presence of a young Arizona team. It’s certainly undeniable that the Coyotes have upgraded their blueline by sending Connor Murphy to Chicago and bringing Hjarmalsson to the desert.

It’s presumed that the newest addition will work alongside top pairing defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson and it has even been reported by Elliott Friedman that Ekman-Larsson had a hand in the trade.

Hjalmarsson is no stranger to playing top line minutes, as he averaged 22 mins per game with the Blackhawks and was often paired with Duncan Keith. His defensive game would seem to be a good complement to the offensive style of play that Ekman-Larsson. In fact, Chayka told Craig Morgan of Arizona Sports that Hjalmarsson would’ve been “the perfect fit for OEL” if he was right-handed, though notably much of his playing time in Chicago was on the right side. Under the previous Coyotes coaching staff, it would’ve been unlikely for the two to be paired for that reason but until a new head coach is named, it’s unknown exactly what the pairings will look like.

The question can still be asked should the two be paired together?


Thanks to the tireless efforts of Corey Sznajder and Ryan Stimson, we can get a better idea of which players should play together on a team. Through their microstats tracking projects and some fancy mathematical calculation that Stimson explains in this article from Hockey Graphs, each defenseman falls into the following categories: All Around, Volume Shooters, Puck-Movers and Defensive-Oriented. Stimson also calculated the best possible pairing of each category type.

It should be noted that the passing project and Sznajder’s microstat tracking have only compiled a couple of seasons of play so far. Additionally, the data is frequently updated and is subject to change at any time. As of this posting, though, the current Coyotes fall into the following categories: Oliver Ekman-Larsson - Volume Shooter; Alex Goligoski - All Around; Niklas Hjalmarsson - Defensive-Oriented; Luke Schenn - Volume Shooter; Kevin Connauton - Volume Shooter; and Jakob Chychrun - Volume Shooter. Stimson even created a Tableau chart that allows the public to see how different pairing and line combination work together.

Ryan Stimson (@RK_Stimp)
Tableau Profile

According to these findings, the most effective defense partner for Ekman-Larsson isn’t Hjalmarsson, but instead would be Goligoski. Last season Ekman-Larsson and Goligoski were only partnered together for a total of 105 minutes of playing time, most likely due to the preference of the coaching staff to keep left-handed defensemen on the left and right-handed defensemen on the right. Like Hjalmarsson, Goligoski has also spent a significant amount of time playing on the right side with previous teams.

Ryan Stimson (@RK_Stimp)
Tableau profile

As interesting as the data and findings are, there is a definite favoritism within them for offensive minded players. All of the microstats included on Stimson’s chart are skewed toward the contributions of each player to their team’s shot totals. So, a stay-at-home defenseman, like Hjalmarsson, isn’t as shown as favorably because his primary purpose is to break up the shot attempts of the other team rather than contribute to the shot totals of his team. One metric that shows just how good he is at doing that is the Goals Above Replacement metric, created by Dawson Sprigings (@DTMAboutHeart). His calculations show that Hjalmarsson is one of the three best even-strength defenders in the entire league.

Chart by @ChartingHockey
Data by @DTMAboutHeart

Considering how porous the defense has been for the Coyotes, regardless of who he ends up being paired with, having someone like Hjalmarsson on the ice who can actually stop the other team may be the best addition of all.