Hawks put a premium on defensemen

Defensemen were in the news for the Chicago Blackhawks as they got back to practice on Saturday in advance of Sunday night’s contest against the Phoenix Coyotes.

First came overnight word, reported by TSN, that Brent Seabrook was on the verge of a 5-year contract extension. General manager Stan Bowman confirmed the Hawks were “close” to a deal with Seabrook though no official announcement was made.

Nick Boynton was then picked up off waivers by Philadelphia, paving the way for a trade-deadline deal for another defenseman.

The near-agreement with Seabrook confirms Bowman’s season-long assertion that the Hawks wanted him in Chicago as part of their core -- despite the now massive expenditures the Hawks have committed to blueliners over the next several years. Bowman said defense is where it all starts in the Hawks’ system.

For the record, starting next season, the Hawks will have approximately $22 million in cap money committed to their top four defensemen. It’s a large amount, only Philadelphia comes close, paying out that much in cap space for five defensemen.

With the move, the Hawks have committed themselves to the Seabrook/Duncan Keith tandem as anchors for the long term. Seabrook has plenty of value, despite a down year in some aspects. He can skate, pass, has size and might be the only physical defensemen the Hawks employ. He’s not known for any one trait. Instead, Seabrook does many things very well. Was it worth near $6 million a year? The marketplace says it was.

The Hawks could move a blueliner in the offseason, or at least try. With the emergence of Nick Leddy, Brian Campbell has become even more expendable. Though he’s a valuable player, proof of which came when he was injured, his trade value may never be higher. He’s having a terrific plus/minus season while anchoring the second power-play unit. He’s also had time on the penalty kill. It’s been whispered around the league Campbell has been available for quite some time, possibly since soon after signing his mega 8-year deal. But his $7.14 million cap hit has scared potential suitors away and with five years remaining on his contract, the price might still be too high.

That leaves Niklas Hjalmarsson as a trade candidate. The Hawks were prepared to pay him in the $1.5-$2 million range before he got an offer sheer to sign with San Jose last summer. The Hawks matched the four-year, $14 million deal thinking he was an emerging force on both ends of the ice. Hjalmarsson had a rough start to the season and has almost become a shot-blocking specialist. He’s excelled at it and has been stronger on the defensive end overall, but only has seven points in 59 games. He might still blossom into the player who’s game senior adviser Scotty Bowman likened to Nicklas Lidstrom, but this year, he was overpaid.

As much as the potential need to shed salary on the back end, the Hawks would be maximizing their situation by making a trade, due to the surprising emergence of Nick Leddy as a top four defenseman. While it could be argued they are overpaying for the return they’re getting from their blueliners, Leddy marks one player who’s playing above his pay grade. The Hawks need to take advantage of it.

On the other hand, there might not be an offseason move of a defenseman due to the importance that position. If the Hawks have five or six they really like, that might get them farther than trying to mix and match while spending more on forwards.

As for Boynton’s departure, it won’t anger many fans. He had incurred their wrath by taking bad penalties and getting beat on the defensive end, not to mention accidentally knocking Marian Hossa out of commission for a month after a practice collision.

His departure makes another move by Bowman nearly imperative. Ironically, Boynton was the guy the Hawks brought in last season as defensive insurance, and he proved worthy with a nice finish, playing in the final three games of Stanley Cup finals. Maybe the Flyers remembered that performance when claiming him.

You can never have enough defense and now the Hawks are down an extra body. Expect them to make a final push for Matt Hunwick of Colorado, Ladislav Smid of Edmonton, or Brett Clark of Tampa Bay, before Monday’s 2 pm trade deadline. Former Buffalo defenseman Craig Rivet, who the Hawks were looking at, was grabbed by Columbus on Saturday.

Their long term future on the blueline is set, now the Hawks just need to take care of the short term and that run to and through the playoffs might still happen.

It was a busy Saturday. Sunday and Monday could prove to be the same.