CHICAGO (AP) — The Chicago Blackhawks, who have lost seven players since winning the Stanley Cup a month ago, said Monday they plan to keep 23-year-old restricted free agent defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson.
Calling Hjalmarsson one of his team's "core" players, Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman said Monday that Chicago will match the four-year, $14 million offer sheet the defenseman signed with the San Jose Sharks last week. Bowman said the team would complete the paperwork within the next day.
Hjalmarsson earned $660,000 last season. The Swede averaged a just under 20 minutes of ice time per game in the regular season and 21 minutes in the playoffs as the No. 4 defenseman behind Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Brian Campbell.
"We've been meeting over the last couple days," Bowman said. "Niklas was a big part of our success last year and he's a part of our core that's going to be together for a long time."
"He gets overshadowed maybe because we're got some other superstars there," he added. "But he was really effective for us all year long. His steady play is something that only is going to get better.
Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville, a former NHL defenseman, is happy that Hjalmarsson is still on his club.
"He does everything you look for in a defenseman," Quenneville said. "Having a predictable defenseman at such a young age is hard to find. Nick fills that need and that void that possibly could have been there."
Hjalmarsson helped Chicago sweep the Sharks in the Western Conference finals last season and then beat the Philadelphia Flyers to win the Stanley Cup.
Had the Blackhawks chose not to match, they would have received San Jose's first- and third-round picks in next year's NHL draft as compensation. The Sharks had targeted Hjalmarsson to replace retiring captain Rob Blake.
"We feel Niklas is a top-three defenseman in the National Hockey League," general manager Doug Wilson said. "We saw his abilities firsthand in the playoffs last season and he was an important piece of a Stanley Cup-winning team. He is a solid player that would be a good fit on our team now and in the future."
Bowman said the Blackhawks continue to negotiate with restricted free agent goaltender Antti Niemi, who has filed for arbitration.
Since winning their first Stanley Cup in 49 years, the Blackhawks already have shed seven players remain on under the NHL's $59.4 million cap for next season. Among those who have left are defenseman Brent Sopel and forwards Dustin Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg and Andrew Ladd.
Bowman didn't rule out the possibility that the Blackhawks might have to trade yet another player — even Niemi — to remain under the cap. The team's situation is complicated by approximately $4 million performance bonuses earned by players last season that apply to the club's 2010-11 cap.
"We're going to have to work things out," Bowman said. "We've been saying all along our goal is to keep our core together. We've been trying to hit that point and Niklas is part of that core. I think you win with defense. I think the success of our team is that we've got some very skilled forwards, but they also get the puck a lot. We want to keep that part of our game intact."