Saturday, July 10, 2010

The salary cap continues to haunt the Blackhawks

Niklas Hjalmarrson

Niklas Hjalmarsson during pregame warmup at the United Center
Stanley Cup Western Conference final, game 4, vs. San Jose Sharks

The Blackhawks have gone about steadily shedding salary cap money pretty much as soon as the post-victory parade confetti was being swept up. Gone in trades are Colin Fraser, Kris Versteeg, Andrew Ladd, Ben Eager, Brent Sopel, Dustin Byfuglien. Adam Burish was allowed to walk as a UFA, and he signed with Dallas. And unless some last-minute team with cap space to blow steps up, it's pretty much a given that Cristobal Huet will be sent to the AHL to finish out his four-year, expensive contract.

In all, the Hawks shed enough money with their eye on the prizes: retaining the services of Swedish defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Finnish goalie Antti Niemi.

Of the two, it seemed like Niemi was going to be the more difficult to reel in, primarily because his agent, Bill Zito, is known for being a real difficult sell. Zito boldly started that he was looking for a long-term contract for his client, something in the neighborhood of 10-12 years.

Perhaps Zito hasn't noticed that the market is flooded with talented goalies. And if this year's Stanley Cup run was any indication, the goalie doesn't even have to be great, just good enough to beat out the guy at the other end of the ice. 

His client - Niemi - has publicly stated, at least in Finland, that he would like to stay with the Blackhawks. No figures have been released by either side, but it is guessed that his team offer sheets were probably somewhere between $2.5-$4/yr for likely 3-5 years. The Blackhawks have been burned before - and quite recently - by goalie deals; and with the current goalie market, they're not about to throw excess money or contract length at any goalie, not even the one who backstopped them to their first Cup win in 49 years. 

And although it was expected they would manage to get Niemi signed by the arbitration deadline, Niemi instead opted for arbitration. It may be that Zito told him to do it in hopes of pushing the Blackhawks towards the lengthy contract he hoped for. It may be Niemi wants more money. Either way, both sides have been mum about it, so, at best, it's all speculative.  The situation was complicated by the St Louis Blues signing Jaroslav Halák to a 4 year/$15M deal ($3.75M/year cap hit). Halák's situation will probably be used as the benchmark for Niemi's arbitration; although a number of other goalies have also been recently signed to deals of $2M/yr or less. By electing for arbitration, this prevents Niemi from receiving - or signing - offer sheets from other clubs. While many looked at the choice as a greed-based chess move - after all, you never know what arbitration will decide - it can also send a clear message that the player has the intent to work things out with their existing club, and are protecting the team from offer sheets.

It was speculated that Niemi would get signed, and then the Blackhawks would lock down restricted free agent Niklas Hjalmarsson, the 23-year-old up-and-coming Swedish defenseman.  In a surprise move, the San Jose Sharks announced today that they had signed Hjalmarsson to a 4 year, $14M offer sheet ($3.5M/year cap hit); which the Blackhawks will now have 7 days to match.

The move is incredibly bold by San Jose. The team was known to be interested in Niemi; but when it was clear that Niemi was not up for grabs, they sat back and waited. After all, it's no secret that the Blackhawks are struggling to get their club within salary cap limits. As a RFA, Hjalmarsson was not eligible to opt for arbitration, but since the lockout, very few offer sheets have been tendered. It's been a bit of an unspoken courtesy to let other teams attempt to sort out their teams on their own, not to go attempting to poach their players so boldly.

The Blackhawks would have 7 days to match this offer sheet. If they do so, they will lock Hjalmarsson in for 4 years at 5.25 times his salary for the 2009-10 season. This is a pretty big raise, probably $0.5-$1M over what the Blackhawks likely expected to sign him for; and it will see him into his some of his prime years. Rumors abounded on Friday afternoon that Chicago may have already made two offers to him which had been turned down. (His qualifying order, and likely a second, better offer.)

By offering $3.5M/year, the Sharks threw an iron gauntlet in Chicago's face, which will force the Blackhawks to choose one or the other, the D-man or the goalie. It is extremely unlikely that Chicago can manage to sign both.

Although the Sharks will lose a couple of long-term D-men this year, they also already have 7 defensemen signed to their team for the 2010-11 season. Taking Hjalmarsson onto the team would likely mean moving somebody else from their roster. It would also be a punch to the gut of Chicago's already weakened D-line. The Sharks sent a clear message: they want to win this year, and they'll do what it takes to do so.

There also remains the speculation that San Jose's ultimate target is not in fact Hjalmarsson, although they clearly would love to have them. If Chicago chooses to match the Sharks offer, it is extremely likely that Niemi would get squeezed off the team - unless arbitration manages to be in the Hawks favor, somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.75-2.5M/year or less. If Niemi doesn't get signed by Chicago, it is very likely that the Sharks would swoop in to scoop him up and perhaps sign him to the multi-year deal his agent wants so badly. They let Nabakov go, and have two decent, although not spectacular, goalies on the roster - one signed for only 2 years; the other for just 1. With a thick defense, however, the Sharks may hope for what Chicago was able to craft this past year - a team that heavily rode its defense/goalie team to a Stanley Cup.

Again: we don't know what Niemi is hoping to get, or wants, other than his stating that he would like to stay in Chicago if possible. The Blackhawks and his agent are mum.

But the Hjalmarsson deal must be looked at from this additional angle as well: the defensive market this year is quite thin. D-men can practically name their own price as teams pluck over the slim amount of selections. The Blackhawks had clearly, firmly stated that they intended to keep Hjalmarrson. 

With that in mind, ask this: If your existing team has told you that re-signing you is a priority, and they spend the time to clean out the roster of several of your teammates in order to make salary cap space for you, then why would you choose to sign an offer sheet somewhere else?

Is it a last-ditch effort to force your existing team to pony up more money than they had already offered you? If so, it seems like an odd way to go about it, with more than two months to go until training camp - therefore, plenty of time to sign - and a market that is hungry for skilled players of your position - meaning that even if you have to wait for that other teammate of yours to get through arbitration to find out how much money is left over to offer you, you're still only waiting for less than two weeks at this point. (Niemi's hearing is the 29th.) And if that new team is that hungry to sign you, they'll be patient enough not to break the unwritten protocol, and wait, too. By forcing your existing team to pay more, it also means that team will likely not be able to sign the other player they want to as well.

Or do you, as a player, simply want to play for the best money that you can, and have less attachment to the team logo that graces the front of your sweater? 

It is a reminder, once again, that hockey is a business, and that both the players and the teams want their piece of the pie.

As a fan of the sport, I feel players should be paid their worth, of course. Nothing crazy, because that simply cripples teams from being competitive. (How many players are worth 15-20% of their team's salary cap all by themselves? Not many.)  But by signing the offer sheet from San Jose, Hjalmarsson has made a statement. Perhaps it is that Chicago wasn't offering enough money; or perhaps - and no still-giddy-from-the-Cup-win fan would want to admit this about one of their own players - but perhaps he is simply looking for something different.

Kevin Epp, his agent, that Hjalmarrson would be "happy" to be a Shark, and that "He's just excited about the opportunity to sign the contract and have some security for him and his family going forward."

So for now, the fans wait. Sportswriters and fans alike have been whipped into a speculative frenzy by this announcement; the general consensus is that the Hawks should pretty much do what they can to hold onto Hjalmarrson, who has shown a lot of growth in his past couple years in the league with Chicago and will likely mature into an outstanding defenseman. 

Will the Blackhawks match the offer? It seems fairly likely at this point - Hjalmarsson has been an important part of the team defense. If they choose not to match it, they will gain San Jose's 1st and 3rd round picks for the 2011 draft. 

No doubt there will be much discussion on both sides of the table before we know the answer to this one.


  1. I've often heard fans wonder where player loyalty is in these contract disputes. To me, it reflects a misunderstanding either of the term or of professional sports. One might just as well ask where the loyalty of Hawks management has gone when well-liked players are summarily disposed of over salary cap concerns. You're right - it is very much a business for both players and management. One party or the other may occasionally drag out that term "loyalty" but they ought to be ashamed at their disingenuousness in doing so. Loyalty is something we possess as fans. We're the ones who will return to that rink in good times and bad, through generations of player and management changes. We're not in it as a business move or a livelihood. Oh, one may see occasional examples of loyalty between players and management, particularly in the case of retired, well loved players, or players who've been with a team for a very long time. But those are exceptions and we ought never to forget that. As a fan, I try to maintain a sharp distinction between on-ice and off-ice team maneuvering, lest the off-ice stuff should taint my enjoyment of the game. To saddle a player with a term likely "loyalty" is very reminiscent of Alfred P. Doolittle's conundrum in "Pygmalion", where he finds himself constrained by the unwanted label of "middle class morality."

  2. Hey, it's _lotus. You know, the more I think about this, the more I'm curious how AGENTS get paid. Do they get a big commission based off their client's deal? Some of them talk and I just wonder WHAT ARE THEY THINKING?


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