07/12/2010 5:54 PM - CHICAGO -- The Chicago Blackhawks had until the end of the week to match a San Jose offer sheet for restricted free agent defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson.
They didn't need nearly that long.
"We're going to match the offer and we're going to get the paperwork done today," Hawks GM Stan Bowman said following the conclusion of the team's prospect camp on Monday. "We just wanted to get through the camp. It's been a busy few days. We've been meeting over the last couple days. Niklas was a big part of our success last year and he's a big part of our core that's going to be together for a long time."
Matching the offer means the Hawks will keep Hjalmarsson, 23, for four years at $3.5 million a season -- a big pay increase from the $666,000 that he made this past season. Bowman didn't blink at doling out the money in spite of its potential impact on the effort to keep the Stanley Cup Champions under the salary cap.
"I'm happy for him," Bowman said. "He's a quiet leader amongst our defensive group. I think he gets overshadowed, maybe because we have some other superstars there, but he was really effective for us all year long. He's only going to get better. We've got a lot of guys that we're building this team around. I'm happy for Niklas and I'm excited that he's going to be with us for awhile."
So is Hawks coach Joel Quenneville.
"He does everything you look for in a defenseman," Quenneville said. "You can never have enough defensemen around, and having a predictable defenseman in this day and age is hard to find. It fills that need and void that possibly could have been there."
The signing now shifts the Hawks' salary decisions to another restricted free agent -- goalie Antti Niemi, who has an arbitration hearing slated for July 29. Bowman said he would also like to re-sign Niemi, but negotiations are still ongoing and space under the League's salary cap will be tight again after the Hjalmarsson deal.
According to Capgeek.com, the Hawks were $3.6 million under the cap before matching the Hjalmarsson offer. They are also expected to send goalie Cristobal Huet to Rockford of the AHL, which would negate his $5.6 million salary from the cap calculations.
Complicating the issue even more is roughly $4 million in performance bonuses earned by Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, which count against the cap.
We're going to have to work things out," Bowman said. "Like we've been saying for a long time, there is a salary cap and we're aware of that, but that's OK. We've been saying all along our goal is to keep our core together. We've been trying to hit that point, and Niklas has been part of that core."
Bowman was also asked whether Niemi might ultimately be traded rather than signed -- joining six other Hawks who were dealt since they won the team's first Cup in 49 years.
"That's a possibility for anybody," Bowman said. "He's no different than other guys ... (but) we're working on getting him signed."
In the mean time, they're pleased to welcome Hjalmarsson back. Bowman said the offer sheet did catch him a little off-guard, but he didn't need too much hand-wringing to make the decision.
"I think you win with defense," he said. "I think the success of our team is that we've got some very skilled forwards, but they also get the puck a lot because they don't have to chase it down. We've got guys who can get them the puck. We want to keep that part of our game intact."