Wednesday, July 28, 2010
By Chris Boden
It's a painful irony.
The Blackhawks are the most financially successful they've been in years, thanks to the product on the ice and the presentation all around it, yet they might not be able to afford to pay the goalie who helped lead them to their first Stanley Cup in half a century.
We'll have a better idea within a week, if not sooner, who'll be the man in the nets when the Blackhawks open defense. It has nothing to do with not wanting Antti Niemi back. Stan Bowman may even totally agree with what agent Bill Zito thinks his client is worth. And you can't deny an agent or a player for wanting what they feel they deserve, especially after turning to him, relying upon him, and getting those 16 wins in April, May and June.
At 8 a.m., Chicago time, Thursday morning in Toronto, each side will get 90 minutes in front of an arbitrator to state their case for Niemi's salary for the 2010-11 season. Niemi will be present. That's where things are always uncomfortable in any sport, even if a team loves the guy and wants him back - listening to why he should be paid lower than the salary he thinks he's worth, and may, in fact, deserve, based on what other goalies of similar age and skill are being paid. Bowman and Zito seem to be in agreement this is more about the money within the salary cap the Hawks don't have now, as opposed to what Niemi should probably earn.
Each side is already aware of the other's proposals and arguments, both through paperwork filed Tuesday, and simply through the numerous conversations Bowman and Zito have had in recent weeks to get creative in hopes of hammering something out. Unless they discover a solution they hadn't found previously and sign a deal prior to the start of the hearing, they'll walk away around lunchtime and wait. The arbitrator's choice between the two proposals comes within 48 hours, and the Hawks then have another 48 to determine whether to accept the ruling. If not, Niemi becomes an unrestricted free agent. If they accept despite a salary being too high for their liking, they have the right to trade Niemi, or keep him and either seek a trade for him, or trade other players to open the necessary salary cap space.
Everyone's asked over the past several weeks what kinds of numbers are being tossed around. I don't know and can only hazard a guess, which might not be as much brain surgery as most things are for me. What I tell them is, if I'm the Hawks, with the money I have and what I may still have to do with the roster, I'm trying to appeal to Niemi's camp the idea of making three times what he made last season as a rookie, which would put him in the 2.5 million salary range, and build on that in a multi-year deal, keeping the Cap "hit" in mind. I have a feeling they might be able to live with having to pay up to 3 million, but don't believe that number's even in play from either side for the hearing. I also tell them the reason I believe there hasn't been an agreement yet is the bar St. Louis set in their 4-year, 15 million contract with Jaroslav Halak. He was also a rookie, had similar regular season numbers as Niemi, and was as big a reason as any the Canadiens knocked off Washington and Pittsburgh before falling to Philadelphia. That's the neighborhood in which Niemi and Zito are likely shopping. And he didn't win the Cup.
So if it comes to the point where Niemi isn't a Blackhawk, where does he go, either by unrestricted free agency or a trade?
The landscape for most teams at that position is pretty settled by now. Do the Flyers think Niemi's that much better than Michael Leighton, whom they re-signed, but not necessarily as the starter? Especially with all those defensemen they have? Yet they have Cap challenges, too. I don't necessarily believe Columbus (which has a new coach) is ready to pull the plug on their guy who just got a Calder Trophy a year ago, Steve Mason. Edmonton has tons of Cap room, and I'm not sure where Nikolai Khabibulin is in his back surgery rehab now - not to mention the money they gave him a year ago for 18 games' worth. Is Ottawa comfortable enough with Elliott and Leclaire? And finally, one rumor making the rounds is that part of Doug Wilson's strategy in his offer sheet for Niklas Hjalmarsson was not just to find a replacement for Rob Blake (which they still must do), but perhaps make a play for Niemi should he go on the market. Wilson signed Antero Niittymaki for 3 million each of the next two seasons, but would he invest further at that position if believes the goalie who helped knock his Sharks out of the post-season is an upgrade?
Marty Turco and Jose Theodore are still on the market, and their prices obviously haven't been right for those clubs still out there seeking goalie help. They are dominoes that may well fall once Niemi's situation is cleared up. Corey Crawford is in the wings, and could he be ready to at least provide what Niemi did?
Those questions don't need to be answered yet. We'll find out soon whether they'll need to be.