Niklas Hjalmarsson could have waited. Could have played out the last season of his current contract and tested the free agent market next summer. Probably could have gotten more than the reported $4.1 million a season he’ll be getting starting next season with his new five-year contract extension announced on Wednesday.
But the fact is, Hjalmarsson just didn’t want to leave.
“I really like playing in Chicago; I’ve been here my whole career, and it’s pretty much felt like home,” the 26-year-old Blackhawks defenseman said. “To imagine playing on a different team is tough for me. When my agent told me that Chicago had contacted him, I told him to try to get a deal done before the season started so I could just concentrate on my game. I’m just really excited.
“Maybe I could have gotten more [money] somewhere else, but I make a lot of money, so I don’t have to think about that too much.”
The Hawks can only hope Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane have the same mindset heading into next summer. The team’s two biggest stars and the cornerstones of two Stanley Cups have two years left in their current, matching $6.3-million-per-season deals, and Hawks GM Stan Bowman certainly will try to extend both next summer.
By signing Corey Crawford and Hjalmarsson, Bowman cleared the deck of any high-profile unrestricted free agents next summer — only Michal Handzus, Brandon Bollig, Sheldon Brookbank and Nikolai Khabibulin will be UFAs, while Andrew Shaw and a handful of top prospects will be restricted — which should allow him to focus on Toews and Kane. The pair will command significant raises, possibly into eight figures (Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin signed an extension at $9.5 million a season in June). Only seven current Hawks — Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Bryan Bickell, Crawford and Hjalmarsson — are signed for 2015-16 at this point, with a cap hit already at about $36.6 million.
Bowman — like many other GMs this summer — is playing a long game here, expecting the salary cap (currently at $64.3 million after the lockout reset) to rise significantly along with revenues over the next couple of years. But he deflected questions about Toews and Kane on Wednesday.
“I’m not trying to play prognosticator on the cap,” Bowman said. “Traditionally, it’s risen. If the game continues to go the way it is, it should continue to increase. Now, the rate of increase is something we can debate all day. The way I look at [the Crawford and Hjalmarsson] signings, though, is when you find good players, you’ve got to keep them. These are important players. It’s hard to find guys like him. If you have one and you know what he’s all about and he wants to be part of your group and he’s an effective player — why wouldn’t you keep him? I think you can sort the rest out later.”
Hjalmarsson, a key member of both the 2010 and 2013 Stanley Cup champion teams, emerged last season as arguably one of the Hawks’ top two defensemen, a steady presence at both ends of the ice. Hjalmarsson had two goals and eight assists and a career-high plus-15 rating during the regular season, and had five assists and a a plus-10 rating in the postseason. The fourth-round pick in 2005 has nine goals and 47 assists and a plus-48 rating in 306 career regular-season games, with one goal and 16 assists in 75 playoff games.
“It’s been a pretty unbelievable summer, that’s for sure,” Hjalmarsson said. “It’s going to be tough to top this one. There’s been a lot of celebrating, a lot of fun stuff going on. I’m really excited with extension here, and I’m looking forward to next season. I love the city, I love the people in Chicago, they’re really friendly. Playing in the United Center in front of 23,000 people every game, it’s really inspiring. On top of that, we have a good team that can compete for the Cup every year. I really wanted to stay in Chicago and really glad I got opportunity to do that.”