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Does Hjalmarrson deal mean Niemi's out?

The Blackhawks opted to match the Sharks' offer sheet to keep Niklas Hjalmarsson. Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Blackhawks fans got a piece of good news when the team decided to match the San Jose Sharks offer to restricted free agent Niklas Hjalmarsson.

In some ways, it was a no-brainer. A 23-year-old defenseman who already plays more mature than his age -- and is getting better -- is hard to find. General manager Stan Bowman indicated on Monday that he’s now part of the core.

That’s the good news, but with any Blackhawks-related story these days, bad news seems to be around the corner.

No matter how the numbers are crunched, there is little doubt that the Hawks are going to have to give up yet another piece from their championship puzzle.

After Hjalmarsson’s raise from $666,000 to $3.5 million, the Hawks are back to having salary cap problems. Big time.

Including the newcomers, save Viktor Stalberg, who has a two-way contract, the Hawks have 14 players signed for a total of approximately $54.3 million. That’s not including the $4 million or so due to Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane for last season’s bonuses. That pushes the number to about $58.3 million. The cap is $59.4 million. Cristobal Huet is certain to come off the books in some manner -- he better -- which reduces the Hawks’ payroll to about $52.7 million.

There’s a need for some cap room to be saved in case of injury, so let’s say that most teams will only spend up to $58 million to be safe. That leaves approximately $5.3 million to be spent on eight players, assuming the Blackhawks carry only 22. That’s an average of $662,000.

That might work if the Hawks’ goaltender wasn’t due a huge raise. Antti Niemi remains the only major name on the team left unsigned. He’s set to go to arbitration on July 29 if the Hawks and Niemi can’t strike a deal.

At minimum, Niemi should, and will, get $2.5 million. Even at that relatively low number, the Hawks probably can’t crunch the numbers enough to get it done. Their payroll would be $55.2 million, give or take a few dollars. That leaves a paltry $2.8 million for seven players for an average of $400,000. The NHL’s minimum salary is $500,000. Something has to give.

None of the options are pleasant. NHL sources say the Hawks are listening to offers for Patrick Sharp and are actively trying to move Brian Campbell. Campbell’s salary and partial no-trade clause make him a hard man to trade. The only other options are to trade Niemi before his arbitration hearing or hope that an arbitrator decides for a salary that is under $2 million. That’s not likely.

If the arbitrator chooses a number closer to new St. Louis Blues goaltender Jaroslav Halak’s $3.75 million average -- which Niemi’s camp is hopeful for -- then the Hawks can choose to “walk away” from the decision and Niemi immediately becomes an unrestricted free agent -- which means he’s gone.

There are always other ways to get things done. Maybe the Hawks carry only 21 players, or don’t save enough for injuries. Either way it’s a tight fit.

They could never have known it (or could they?) but from a public relations standpoint, maybe Hawks’ brass should have waited to sign Toews, Kane, and Duncan Keith to extensions. In effect, they’re three free agents that the Hawks signed this offseason. The only problem is, they were signed mid-season. Even after all the trades, if Bowman could have held a press conference on June 30, 2010 to announce the extensions, Hawks fans would be somewhat delighted at this offseason. Instead, it’s been one player after another exiting. And the two major names that were left unsigned may only get done by means of an offer sheet (Hjalmarsson) and an arbitrator (Niemi).

Unless and until the full story comes out, no one will know or understand for sure why Hjalmarsson and Niemi weren’t locked up before July 1. There were probably legitimate reasons but if Bowman had any inkling -- and he should have -- that one or both of them could receive offer sheets from other teams, then he should have moved faster. Of course, it takes two to tango, but there is no indication there was a feeling of immediacy on the Hawks’ part. As written previously, a 10-year deal reducing the average salary would have most certainly opened some eyes in the defenseman and goalie’s camps. Those offers never came.

As is, Niemi had arbitration rights and is one year away from unrestricted free agency. It’s clear what the Hawks think of him -- he’s not a core guy and not a major reason they won the Cup. Many fans may feel the same way.

Some masochistic fan should do the research. Has any Stanley Cup-winning team turned over nine or more players the very next year? That’s what the Hawks are facing once John Madden signs somewhere and if/when they move another key component from their championship team to make this all work.

Hey, at least Hjalmarsson isn’t going anywhere.