Niklas Hjalmarsson was days away from becoming a San Jose Shark when Chicago Blackhawks General Manager Stan Bowman decided to match San Jose’s four-year, $14-million offer sheet on this day seven years ago.
Four days away, to be exact. Bowman, however, did not need the full week allotted to him under the then-collective bargaining agreement to decide to bring the Swedish defenseman back into the fold. Chicago, then the defending Stanley Cup Champions, had to make a series of difficult decisions that offseason as a result of an epic salary cap crunch.
Even though the Sharks did not get Hjalmarsson, the offer sheet paid off. It forced the Original Six franchise to walk away from goaltender Antti Niemi’s $2.75 million arbitration award, as the team could not afford to retain him at that price. San Jose General Manager Doug Wilson swooped in once more, and signed Niemi to a one-year, $2 million deal a month later.
Hjalmarsson’s offer sheet also came just three years after the highly public acrimony surrounding the Edmonton Oilers signing Thomas Vanek and Dustin Penner to offer sheets, and two years after the St. Louis Blues retaliated to David Backes’ offer sheet from Vancouver by signing then-Canuck Steve Bernier to an offer sheet of their own. Offer sheets, just as they were before the salary cap, remained an unseen line in the sand for teams, and unwritten rules forbade their usage.
If any tension emerged between Wilson, himself a former Chicago defensemen, and Bowman, the two certainly have not shown it. Since the Hjalmarsson trade, San Jose and Chicago have traded with each other three times, including at the trade deadline in 2013 and 2015.
Yet, only two players have signed offer sheets since Hjalmarsson’s seven years ago, and just once under the NHL’s current collective bargaining agreement. The last came in February 2013, when Ryan O’Reilly signed a two-year, $10 million offer sheet with the Calgary Flames, which the Colorado Avalanche ultimately matched.
So, what gives? Some have argued that teams that the unwritten rules may have become handshake agreements, while other teams are worried about teams poaching their own restricted free agents or ruining relationships. Plus, many general managers say they’ll match any offer sheet that comes their way.
Hjalmarsson’s offer sheet seven years ago disputes most of those claims. Wilson’s maintained a working relationship with Bowman, and was able to take advantage of Chicago’s cap conundrum even if he didn’t get the player he originally signed. Few teams will ever face the need to sell off players en masse like Chicago did seven years ago, but Wilson showed that well-timed offer sheet can add to a team’s headaches.
Such an offer sheet likely could have especially paid dividends this offseason. Prior to trading Marcus Johansson, the Washington Capitals would have been ripe for such a deal with then-unsigned restricted free agents Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky. As we’ve written previously, an offer sheet to Leon Draisaitl would be a win-win for any of the Oilers’ competitors flush with picks and salary cap space.
Teams should look to the Hjalmarsson signing as an example. Instead, it’s just an interesting historical footnote.