Chicago Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman faced a difficult decision roughly one year into his run with the role — a decision that spawns quite the “what if” question today
Debating which moves are the best of Chicago Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman can certainly bring up a mixed bag of answers. Part of that is because not all fans can agree on what’s “best,” and another part is certain moments get forgotten over time.
Case in point would be what I consider easily among his top five moves as Blackhawks GM: the matching of an offer sheet extended to defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson.
This happened almost a year to the day Bowman was promoted to GM, replacing Dale Tallon in the role. That occurred on July 14, 2009. Roughly a year later, Bowman was general managing (?) over a team that had just won the Stanley Cup, but also one that was losing players by the boatload.
The Blackhawks were at risk of losing an oft-overlooked young blueliner in Hjalmarsson, too. Early in July, San Jose Sharks general manager Doug Wilson took the rare step of presenting an offer sheet to Hjalmarsson. It was a four-year, $14 million sheet that Hjammer signed.
It left Bowman with a major decision. Prior to the offer sheet being deployed, Bowman was trying figure out the best way to approach the need for contracts for a pair of free agents: Hjalmarsson and goaltender Antti Niemi. Wilson’s offer sheet to Hjammer expedited this process.
On July 12, 2010, Bowman announced the Blackhawks would be matching the offer sheet given to Hjalmarsson. Niemi would eventually walk after the Blackhawks declined to meet a salary arbitrator’s demands for Niemi ($2.75 million).
Niemi signed a deal with the Sharks and stayed there until summer 2015. He then went to Dallas before being bought out this offseason. He’s now on a deal with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
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Hjalmarsson, meanwhile, went on to win the Stanley Cup two more times in Chicago before he was moved to Arizona this offseason in a salary cap move.
So … what might have happened if Hjammer’s offer sheet was not matched by the Blackhawks in 2010? First, let’s try and follow what Bowman may have been thinking during this time.
Looking back at Bowman’s decision
To me, this is among the more interesting “what if” scenarios for the Blackhawks in the Jonathan Toews/Patrick Kane era. Fans were and still are anywhere from disappointed to outright mad following the trade of Hjammer to Arizona. It would have been hard to imagine that in 2010.
Niemi was the netminder who replaced struggling veteran Cristobal Huet over the course of the 2009-10 season and backstopped Chicago to its first Cup in 49 years. Sure, his numbers weren’t spectacular in the playoffs (.910/2.63 statline), but most goalies who help their team break a championship drought are going to get the “keep him by any means” treatment from the fans. (Corey Crawford is, sadly, an exception to this.)
Hjammer, meanwhile, was a quiet 23-year-old defenseman who wasn’t some sort of offensive standout from the blue line like Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook or Brian Campbell. He was a solid fourth defenseman who played defense particularly well.
When gauging that line of thought versus the positive vibes surrounding Niemi after the Cup win, there were likely plenty of fans who expected Hjammer’s offer sheet to be the end of his time in Chicago. After all, what did the Blackhawks have in net if Niemi was let go?
Da Windy City
There wasn’t a guarantee, of course, that both Hjammer and Niemi couldn’t be kept in the 2010 offseason. But it was pretty close to that, as the Blackhawks were pressed up against the salary cap already and needed to pay both of these guys. With arbitration looming for Niemi, it became clear it was going to be a one or the other scenario barring a miracle.
Wilson’s offer sheet to Hjammer certainly didn’t help matters. So what was Bowman to do?
Well, here’s what I think he saw. While Hjammer was currently a fourth defenseman in Chicago, Bowman had to have noticed the giant Campbell contract could not be sustained by the Blackhawks forever, lest they continue to lose more young talent. So Hjammer’s path to No. 3 defenseman was pretty clear.
Additionally, he offered a brand of play on the blue line that no one else really could for Chicago at that point. Considering he could be kept around at a lower cost than some of his counterparts and was just in his early 20s, Hjammer had to have looked like an attractive piece to keep despite a non-flashy style of play.
Niemi, meanwhile, was entering his late 20s in the 2010 offseason. While the Blackhawks didn’t appear to have much else going on in net should he leave the team, there was longtime prospect Crawford waiting in the wings. Slightly younger than Niemi, Crow would be a more cost-effective option in the short term who knew the Blackhawks’ system extremely well.
And so, Bowman matched Hjammer’s offer sheet and waited on arbitration with Niemi. The number didn’t work in his favor. But, of course, that leaves our “what if” question unanswered.
What if … the offer sheet had not been matched?
The alternative to this, of course, was Bowman not matching the offer sheet. Perhaps he felt Hjammer wasn’t worth that cost and could be replaced, while also not being comfortable with Chicago’s goaltending corps if Niemi was to leave.
So, let’s say Bowman doesn’t match the offer sheet. Hjammer goes to San Jose, and the Blackhawks feel more comfortable paying Niemi his $2.75 million. I suppose there’s a chance Niemi is still allowed to walk if Hjammer also departs, but I would consider that unlikely given the Blackhawks decided to sign Marty Turco as a backup once Niemi left.
Now we have a Blackhawks team rolling into the 2010-11 season with a likely goaltending tandem of Niemi and Crow (called up from the AHL). The two would split starts, with Niemi more than likely getting the lion’s share.
Considering Crow truly started his development into a top-10 NHL goaltender at this point (that NHL.com list is wrong), losing starts at this point could have been brutal to him becoming an NHL-quality netminder in the future. Meanwhile, Niemi was never able to match his 2009-10 season in Chicago, so the Blackhawks may have been left with a pretty sketchy outlook in the goaltender department moving forward.
And don’t say they would’ve gotten help from the defense. Without Hjalmarsson, that group gets really ugly. Outside Keith, Seabrook and Campbell, the Blackhawks were relying on a really young Nick Leddy, Nick Boynton, Chris Campoli, Jassen Cullimore, Jordan Hendry and John Scott. That’s just abysmal.
Letting Hjammer walk in 2010 would have set the Blackhawks’ defense back in a massive way. I guess you can argue that, without his future contracts on the books, the Blackhawks could go out and find a capable replacement. But considering Hjammer was essentially the team’s No. 1 defenseman by the time the 2016-17 season ended, that feels like a bit of a stretch.
I’m not trying to say allowing Hjalmarsson to walk in 2010 would have ruined the Blackhawks in the immediate future, but … it definitely feels like it would have caused quite a bit of consternation, at best.
Maybe Crow still develops well sharing starts with Niemi and eventually takes over. Or maybe Niemi somehow plays better in Chicago than he did in San Jose and Dallas. And perhaps the Blackhawks patch up the Hjammer-sized hole and become a strong team again after some down seasons.
But I just think it’s all too much of a stretch. In my estimation, Bowman saying “yes” to Hjammer and letting Niemi walk was entirely critical to the Blackhawks eventually winning the Cup again in 2013 and 2015. A tough decision at the time, but the right one in the end.