Hjalmarsson stays put and Hawks stay focused
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Niklas Hjalmarsson realizes he might have been able to make more cash had he tested the waters as an unrestricted free agent next summer but that money isn't everything.
It was more important for the 26-year-old defenseman and two-time Stanley Cup winner to stay in Chicago with the Blackhawks.
Now isn't that refreshing?
"To imagine playing for a different team is tough for me because I feel so much for the city and for the team," Hjalmarsson said Wednesday after agreeing to a five-year contract extension that will pay him $4.1 million annually starting next season. "Yeah, maybe I could have gotten more somewhere else, but I make a lot of money so I don't really have to think about that too much. I'm just happy over the situation and to be able to stay in Chicago."
So in a matter of three days, Hawks general manager Stan Bowman has locked up two more core players in Hjalmarsson and goalie Corey Crawford — players who would have been the club's two biggest unrestricted free agents next summer and cleared the deck for negotiations with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane to start next July.
Toews and Kane will be UFAs after next season and while Bowman can't begin negotiations with them until July 1, one year out from the end of their contracts, this allows him to see the big picture more clearly.
Bowman, who now has 14 players locked into contracts through at least next season, is confident it will all play out in the Hawks' favor with regard to Toews and Kane.
"It's hard to play prognosticator on the cap," Bowman said. "We reset year with the new agreement (to $64.3 million), and if the game continues to go the way it is, it should increase, the rate of which is something we can debate all day. But it does go up.
"The way I look at these signings (Hjalmarsson and Crawford), if you get good players, you've got to keep them. These are two players who have played a huge role in getting us to where we're at now. These are important players. Niklas plays a critical role on our defense."
Hjalmarsson is the fifth member of the defense signed through at least next season joining Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Johnny Oduya and Nick Leddy in that department.
"The continuity for me is very important, especially on defense," Bowman said. "It's a critical position. I think for our team having stability on defense really seems to get our team game in order. When we have the guys on the back end who have chemistry with one another and can transition the puck to offense and play a lot more in the offensive zone, it's critical. I look at that as a strength."
Hjalmarsson, who got married last month, considers Chicago to be his home away from home.
"It's been a pretty unbelievable summer, that's for sure," he said. "It's going to be tough to top this one. Me and my wife get to stay in Chicago for six more years. I love the city, I love the people of Chicago, they're really friendly, and playing at (the United Center) in front of 23,000 people every game is really inspiring.
"We have a team that can compete for the Cup every year. I really wanted to stay in Chicago, and I'm glad I got the opportunity to that."
Hjalmarsson is coming off arguably his best season. Paired mostly with Oduya, particularly in the playoffs, he was plus-10 in 23 playoff games. He had 10 points and was plus-15 in 46 regular-season games and was the Hawks' best shot blocker.
"You look at the role Niklas plays (and) he's a warrior," Bowman said. "He's a heart and soul guy who is really relied upon and the coaching staff trusts him. He does things that other guys don't want to do: penalty killing, blocking shots, defending and keeping the puck out of the net.
"To have a player who hasn't reached his best years yet, who's just coming into his prime, you want to keep someone like that. He's been improving each year and we expect he'll continue to do so. For that, it's an easy decision to commit to him."
The Hawks open training camp next week in South Bend, Ind., and Hjalmarsson is ready to defend the Cup.
"There are a lot of guys left from last year; you can't really complain about anything," Hjalmarsson said. "The guys are going to be focused on having a better start than last time after we won in 2010. It took us 20-25 games to start playing good hockey (the following season). That's something we'll focus on here, to be ready for the puck drop in Game 1."
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