Hawks match Sharks' offer sheet for Hjalmarsson

Niklas Hjalmarsson is a Blackhawk and will be for some time.

General manager Stan Bowman wasn’t about to let the San Jose Sharks — perennial contenders in the Western Conference — steal the Hawks’ promising young defenseman.

So Bowman announced Monday the Hawks are matching the Sharks’ four-year, $14 million offer sheet that Hjalmarsson, a restricted free agent, signed last week.

”Niklas was a big part of our success last year,” Bowman said. ”He is part of our core that is going to be together for a long time. I’m happy for him. He’s a quiet leader among our defensive group. He gets overshadowed because we have some other superstars there. But he was really effective for us all year long. … He’s only going to get better. He’s 23 years old.”

But keeping Hjalmarsson also creates more obstacles. Hjalmarsson’s cap hit will be $3.5 million each season. So despite parting with Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, Kris Versteeg and so on, Bowman still has plenty of work to do because of the Sharks’ ingenious move.

Bowman said it never was a choice between Hjalmarsson and goalie Antti Niemi, another restricted free agent. Before the offer sheet, a source said the Hawks previously had discussed only short-term contracts with Hjalmarsson, who made $666,000 in 2009-10. But by taking on his new salary, more tough decisions await the cap-stricken Hawks.

Brent Seabrook has one year left on his contract, and Brian Campbell, with his $7 million-plus salary, already has become the subject of trade speculation. Campbell has a limited no-trade clause, which allows him to choose teams.

For the time being, finding a way to fit Niemi and the raise he’s due into the books is Bowman’s biggest challenge. Niemi filed for arbitration and will have his hearing July 29. But Bowman would like to have a deal in place before then. Restricted free agents Bryan Bickell and Jack Skille also have to be signed.

It will be interesting to see how Hjalmarsson’s new salary affects negotiations with Niemi’s camp, especially with the Hawks having even less cap space than before with several roster spots to fill.

http://www.suntimes.com/sports/hockey/blackhawks/2492270,CST-SPT-hawk13.article