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Hjalmarsson offer sheet hard to match

“[Offer sheets] don’t concern me. These guys are going to remain with the Blackhawks. We have plenty of flexibility to make things work.” -- Hawks general manager Stan Bowman, June 30, 2010

There is some irony that on the day the Hawks welcomed their prospects for a weekend of workouts and scrimmages, a job may have just opened up for one of them on the blue line.

In what many considered a shocking move, including possibly the Blackhawks and Niklas Hjalmarsson’s camp itself, the San Jose Sharks have stepped in with a four-year, $14-million offer for the restricted free agent. The Hawks have seven days to match the offer or they will lose yet another key player from their Stanley Cup team. If he leaves for the west coast, the Hawks will receive a first-round and third-round pick in next year’s draft, but that won’t help them repeat as champs.

Stan Bowman made it clear on the eve of free agency that his key restricted free agents wouldn’t be leaving.

“Offer-sheet talk is of no concern to me,” Bowman said.

It is now, as Sharks general manager Doug Wilson undoubtedly made a shrewd and calculated move in offering the up-and-coming defenseman a huge raise from his $666,000 salary last season.

Wilson waited until the dust settled and saw his main rival still with potential salary cap problems, especially if the right offer came along for Hjalmarsson or goalie Antti Niemi. By forcing the Hawks to match the $3.5 million-per-year average, he might be forcing them to choose between Hjalmarsson and Niemi, the latter of whom has a date with arbitration if he doesn’t sign a deal. If the Hawks want to keep both players, then someone else of name, say Patrick Sharp, may have to go.

Bowman has said all along that nothing that has happened has been a surprise, or outside the framework of his offseason plan, but this might be the one move that caught him off-guard. It came nearly 10 days after the start of free agency and it’s the only offer sheet to a restricted NHL free agent this offseason.

Bowman wasn’t available to the media on Friday at prospects’ camp and may not comment publicly on Hjalmarsson until a scheduled press session on Monday.

Hjalmarsson could represent the tipping point for any chance at a repeat. Without him, the Hawks become very thin on the back end. At some point, the losses are just too much to overcome, especially coming off a short offseason.

The Hawks best play may be to match the Sharks and go “all-in” with Niemi, offering him a double-digit length type of contract to reduce his average salary. In other words, give him security instead of an immediate huge payday. That might not even work considering the Hawks’ cap woes. Or they can go to arbitration and pray someone views Niemi’s resume too short to give him a major jump from his $827,000 salary of a year ago. That’s probably wishful thinking and almost assuredly signals the end to Niemi’s career with the Blackhawks after next season.

One of the biggest cap problems has nothing to do with overly-friendly deals former GM Dale Tallon engineered for some current and former Hawks. The bonuses that Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane earned this past season are enough to put the Hawks in the position they are in.

Toews won the Conn Smythe and Kane finished in the top 10 in scoring. That means approximately $4 million in bonuses between them, which count against this year’s cap. If that extra $4 million was in Bowman’s pocket, signing Hjalmarsson and Niemi wouldn’t be nearly as hard, and neither would deciding to match the Sharks’ offer.

Whether it was in their control or not, it’s hard to imagine an offseason going worse for the Hawks. No one thought they would have to move one of their main stars, but not many imagined that almost everybody else would be gone. And now there might be one more.

The clock is ticking.