TSN first reported late Friday morning that the San Jose Sharks had extended a four-year, $14 million offer sheet to Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson, who is a restricted free agent. That is a $3.5M cap number.
What this means is that the Blackhawks now have seven days to meet San Jose’s offer in order to keep Hjalmarsson. If the Blackhawks opt to not match the Sharks terms, Hjalmarsson could leave to join San Jose and Chicago would receive the Sharks’ first and third round draft picks in 2011 as compensation.
“We feel Niklas is a top-three defenseman in the National Hockey League,” Sharks GM (and former Hawks defenseman) Doug Wilson told NHL.com. “We saw his abilities first-hand in the playoffs last season and he was an important piece of a Stanley Cup-winning team. He is a solid player that would be a good fit on our team now and in the future.”
The Blackhawks still have to deal with another restricted free agent, goaltender Antti Niemi, who elected to make his case eligible for arbitration if the two sides cannot agree to terms. Because of St. Louis signing Jaroslav Halak to a deal with a $3.75M cap number, Niemi’s terms will likely start there and could eclipse $4M per season.
When the number offered to Hjalmarsson by San Jose is added to the number given Halak by St. Louis, the sum is more than the Blackhawks can afford right now even in light of the cost cutting measures taken since the Stanley Cup Finals ended.
It would now appear that the Blackhawks have been forced to a crossroads: do they keep Hjalmarsson, who most observers would agree with Wilson in rating as a top-three defenseman, or do they pay to keep Niemi between the pipes?
History would lead us to believe it will be Hjalmarsson who will bear the Indian Head next year and not Niemi, unless the netminder brings his salary demands back to earth. Hawks GM Stan Bowman’s father, Scotty, has a long and successful history because he built his blue line and had strong two-way forwards, and won Cups with average goalies (Chris Osgood for example). This would lead us to a discussion surrounding Marty Turco, Jose Theodore, or other unrestricted free agents that might be had for around $2M, an affordable number for the cap-strapped Hawks.
However, there is a conspiracy theory that is worth considering.
Despite adding Antero Nittymaki as a free agent on July 1, the Sharks had been rumored to be very interested in Niemi. Indeed, there was a popular rumor that the Sharks would make present Niemi and his agent with an offer sheet and force the Blackhawks’ hand with the young netminder. Considering Nittymaki is 30 and signed a two-year deal, adding another goalie wouldn’t be a terrible idea for the Sharks.
Now the conspiracy: Wilson has no intention of paying Hjalmarsson.
If my theory stands true, and Wilson actually wants Niemi, this move could be a stroke of genius for the Sharks’ GM. By presenting the offer sheet to Hjalmarsson, he is forcing the Blackhawks to keep a defenseman he knows they don’t want to part with under any circumstances. However, when the Hawks match the offer to Hjalmarsson, they’ll be forced to take Niemi’s case to arbitration, at which point the Hawks may be forced to walk away from the table because of cap issues.
This would allow the Sharks to keep the first and third round picks they would owe the Hawks as compensation for a RFA offer sheet, and would still get their targeted goalie in the process.
It will be interesting to see what comes from this, but it might be time for Hawks fans to get comfortable with the idea of one more player, this time an important one, leaving the Stanley Cup champions.