With San Jose Missing Out on Niklas Hjalmarsson, What's Next For The Sharks?

Andy BenschSenior Writer IJuly 12, 2010

CHICAGO - MAY 31:  Niklas Hjalmarsson #4 of the Chicago Blackhawks moves the puck while taking on the Philadelphia Flyers in Game Two of the 2010 NHL Stanley Cup Final at the United Center on May 31, 2010 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Andre Ringuette/Getty Images)
Andre Ringuette/Getty Images

Just this past Friday, the San Jose Sharks announced that they had signed Chicago Blackhawks' restricted free agent defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson to a 4-year, $14 million contract.

Now as a restricted free agent, this offer kicked into gear a period of seven days in which the Blackhawks had to decide whether or not to match San Jose's offer.

And despite most fans and experts believing Chicago would take the full seven days to mull over their decision, Yahoo Sports is reporting today that the Blackhawks have indeed matched San Jose's offer.

Had they declined to match, the Blackhawks would have been compensated with San Jose's first and third round draft choices from next year's draft, but with today's news, it is obvious that Chicago believes Hjalmarsson to be critical to their future success.

While it shouldn't come as a surprise that Chicago matched San Jose's offer, many NHL followers figured the Blackhawks might just let Hjalmarsson walk because of their salary cap issues.

Not only is Chicago still in a position where they need to shed more big contracts, but with defenseman like Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, and Brian Campbell on the roster, one can see why some out there believed the chances were high that Hjalmarsson would become a Shark.

But unfortunately for Sharks fans, the hopes of seeing Hjalmarsson wearing teal next season have been completely squashed today and fans will have to settle for a less exciting bonus.

They didn't get the huge bonus of adding a top-four quality defenseman, but they have forced Chicago into a heavy raise for Hjalmarsson and subsequently into bigger cap problems.

Therefore, even though the Sharks were swept by Chicago in the Western Conference final this past season, it wouldn't be far-fetched to say that at this point in time, San Jose looks more primed to return to the Conference finals than their foes.

After all, with Chicago trading away the likes of Dustin Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg, Andrew Ladd, and others, the Blackhawks are worse off than they were last season.

For Sharks fans, a trade fury dump of similar players would have been Ryane Clowe, Devin Setoguchi, Torrey Mitchell, and Logan Couture.

Clearly, Chicago is going to have a much different looking lineup next season while the Sharks, as it currently stands, have almost the entire team coming back from last season.

Minus a change in goal (which, with Nabokov's playoff inconsistencies isn't a big loss) and the loss of third line center Manny Malhotra, the Sharks bring back all the marquee contributors.

Dany Heatley, Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, and Dan Boyle are all returning for another year in San Jose.

But that said, even with the Sharks returning all the big dogs, and Chicago losing many key contributors, NHL writers and fans alike still agree that San Jose is need of a major defensive upgrade if they want to beat the best of the best in the postseason.

And with Sharks GM Doug Wilson having attempted to snatch Hjalmarsson away from Chicago, it is clear that San Jose agrees with the writers and fans that they need help on the blue line.

After all, besides Dan Boyle, the Sharks don't have another clear-cut top-three caliber defenseman. Douglas Murray (Boyle's main partner for last season) is more of a number four than he is a number two type defender, and the smooth skating Marc-Edouard Vlasic doesn't bring the necessary offensive consistency of a top-three.

Rounding out the defenders on the roster (who saw time in the NHL last season) are Jason Demers, Kent Huskins, Niclas Wallin, Jay Leach, and Derek Joslin.

Demers had an impressive rookie year offensively, but was a disappointment in his own end during the entirety of the regular season and because of it saw limited ice time in the postseason. Chances are he isn't ready for a top-four role just yet.

Huskins doesn't bring much to the table offensively but as a fifth/sixth defenseman, he is as reliable as they come in the defensive end.

Wallin, and his brand spanking new $2.5 million contract for next season has no business being anything higher than a No. 5 defenseman as he is older and brings less to the table than Huskins.

Leach is a perfect seventh defenseman who can play 20-30 games, filling in for injury, but his lack of any offensive talent and suspect decision making limits his ability to establish himself as anything better than a No. 7.

Joslin is a promising young defenseman with offensive and defensive upside—and at 23 years old, he may be just coming into his own with the chance to become San Jose's main No. 6 defenseman.

Now putting all these defenders together and the picture comes clear on what San Jose is missing.

Boyle- No. 1

Vlasic- No. 3/4

Murray- No. 4

Demers- No. 4/5

Huskins- No. 5/6

Wallin- No. 5/6

Leach- No. 6/7

Joslin- No. 6/7/8

Where is the No. 2 defenseman? Murray played that role alongside Boyle last year but he isn't the clear cut, prototypical No. 2 guy and neither is Vlasic.

Demers has No. 2 potential but he may not even be ready for No. 4 duties just yet.

The Sharks still need that second go to defender after Boyle and thus far during free agency they haven't made it happen.

Defensemen like Sergei Gonchar, Dan Hamuis, Paul Martin, Anton Volchenkov, Pavel Kubina, Zybnek Michalek, and Braydon Coburn were all free agents the Sharks could have signed but for whatever reason they couldn't find away to sign a single one of them.

Each and every one of them would have brought the Sharks top-two caliber ice time to the defensive corps but San Jose wasn't able to sign any of them.

So what options remain for San Jose?

Are there any unrestricted free agent defensemen left to fill a No. 2 void?

Andy Sutton maybe, but at his age he's more of a No. 4 shut down defender than a No. 2 and he would only be a stop gap.

And as for restricted free agents, there are Columbus' Anton Stralman, Calgary's Ian White, and Dallas' Nicklas Grossman.

White is arguably the best of that group but he has recently filed for arbitration so while he could potentially become an unrestricted free agent, it would be surprising if the Flames just let him walk free.

Stralman and Grossman have No. 2 potential but they have yet to fully establish themselves as consistent top-four quality defenders.

Essentially, all the options the Sharks have left available in free agency bring major question marks.

With that in mind, expect the Sharks to make yet another block buster trade for a third offeason in a row.

Based on the talents of the last two offseason acquisitions by the Sharks (Dan Boyle and Dany Heatley) possible trade targets for San Jose could be names even the casual fan is familiar with.

Tomas Kaberle, Shea Weber, Erik Johnson, Tobias Enstrom, Ryan Suter, Andrei Markov, and Marc Staal are just some of the defenseman that could soon be living in the greater San Francisco Bay Area.