Blackhawks walk away from Niemi arbitration; what now for Niemi?

Ever since winning the Stanley Cup less than two months ago, the Chicago Blackhawks have steadily stripped away a large number of players that skated around the ice with the trophy overhead. Fan favorites, each in their own way, for a team that was overloaded with depth - some through trades, some allowed to walk as their contracts expired: Byfuglien. Eager. Sopel. Versteeg. Fraser. Burish. Madden. Boynton. Ladd.

The latest casualty: Antti Niemi, the quiet Finnish rookie who backstopped the team to their first Cup win in 49 years.

It's a strange ending to Niemi's Cinderella story, one that played out only through a handful of comments to the media via Niemi's agent, Bill Zito, and through minimal information from the Blackhawks. Stories and speculation ran rampant through fandom since the Cup win, wondering - and waiting - for the Hawks to resign Niemi.

Niemi publicly stated he wished to remain a Hawk, as did his agent, as did the team. Stan Bowman confidently boasted a month ago - after all the financial juggling the team did - that both Hjalmarsson and Niemi "weren't going anywhere", further stating that offer sheets didn't happen that often.

Turns out, he was premature.

The Sharks tendered an offer sheet to defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson at $3.5M/yr for 4 years. In recent interviews, Hjalmarsson admitted there had been questions about whether Chicago could afford to bring him back, and with a hefty offer of a 425.5% raise on the table, one could hardly blame him or his agent for signing on the dotted line.

Of course, this immediately forced Chicago's hand. Hjalmarsson has split the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons between Rockford and Chicago, but in 2009-10, he was all Chicago, putting in 77 regular season games and all 22 playoff games, a key part to the Blackhawks' solid defense. There was never any doubt from fans or the club that Hjalmarsson would be re-signed to the team, although if Bowman and company had prioritized his signing over Niemi's, maybe they could've gotten him at a more cap-friendly figure somewhere in the $2.5-$3M range, saving enough money on his salary to be able to afford to resign their goalie at a reasonable price.

The thing is, of course, that we'll never know.

Everybody expected that something would happen for Neimi before the arbitration filing deadline. Fans, writers - and probably the Blackhawks themselves - were surprised when Niemi filed for arbitration. His situation was unique: a Stanley Cup-winning rookie goalie with just 22 post-season games and only 39 regular season games under his belt. While Niemi did not singularly win the team the Cup, there is no doubt that he played a very large role; he was touted as a Conn Smythe candidate, and even his teammates said that his solid play in net allowed them to stay in the game on nights that the team needed to find its feet on the ice. (Just take a look at the Nashville series.) His salary last year was just over $820K, so a raise to $2.5M would've represented a 305% raise in salary.

The solid rumor throughout July was that Niemi (or at least his agent) wanted at least $3-4M/yr in a multiyear deal. Zito, after all, stated to the media after the Cup win that they would be seeking a raise for Niemi, and from his words, it seemed he wanted two things for his client: a lot of money and a multi-year deal. It would be hard to imagine that Zito was looking at the goalie market in a realistic light - or that he was reading the Blackhawks correctly. Top-shelf, proven goalies were being cut from their teams and were set afloat in a market saturated with cheap, hungry goalies. If nobody wanted - or could get - the likes of veterans Theodore, Turco, or Nabakov for around $4M or less, who was going to sign Niemi for that much, Cup win or no? And Chicago's salary cap issues were tight - they had to jettison many popular players just to get under the cap, and more to be able to sign those whose services they wished to retain.

Ultimately, players have the final say about signings, of course, but sometimes you see news of very respectable contracts being offered to players that get turned down. The NHL has long been noted as running contrary to how the NFL, MLB and NBA do: instead of overpaying rookies who haven't proven themselves, the NHL tends to wait for you to prove you can play, and your pay goes up as your skills do, with most hockey player salaries peaking in their late 20s/early 30s.

Here's what's been the rub for fans: if Niemi really wanted to keep playing in Chicago, and Chicago wanted to keep him, and everybody knows what issues the salary cap issues are, why was he unwilling to sign a single-year, "hometown discount" contract in order to keep playing with the team, until the team would get more breathing room next season? A more interesting question would be: did Niemi put so much faith and trust in his agent - letting his agent entirely hold the reins, it would appear - that his agent cost him the job? Conflicting reports have come out in the past 48 hours: the Blackhawks have said they came up with several salary solutions including multi-year deals; while Niemi's agent claims that the Blackhawks never made a multi-year offer. Frankly, most people are going to believe the team's word on this one.

So why would Zito - or Niemi - have believed a cash-strapped team was going to make that much room in their payroll for a goalie coming off their rookie year, when the team is coming off a decade of being burned by bad, overpaid goalie decisions?

I can't claim to know Niemi personally, of course, but he seems to be a humble, hardworking guy. This is the same guy who just three years ago was driving his rink's Zamboni to make ends meet. This is the guy who went from obscurity to beating out the Blackhawks' $5+M number one goalie for the job, and ended up helping win the Stanley Cup. Helped win; didn't win it solo. It just seems strange that this guy, who apparently just wanted to focus on getting out on the ice each night and do his job and win, suddenly becomes so greedy for salary that he would put his team in a hard way. Fans have been bracing for the inevitable bad news ever since hearing that Niemi's camp took the Blackhawks to arbitration; now they're openly speculating who was more at fault here - Niemi, or his agent.

Another sensible reason that Niemi should've signed a 1-year, cheaper contract with the Blackhawks is that he could have proved his worth on a team that he was comfortable with. He could've shown everybody that the 2009-10 season wasn't a fluke, and - if the team was in clear contention for another run at the Cup next spring, it would have put him in a far more solid bargaining position for a hefty pay raise and/or long-term contract.

Of course, all along, there have been the naysayers and the doubters, who spent last season - and the playoffs - pointing out that Niemi played behind one of the tightest defenses in the league. During the regular season, it became clear that nobody was going to believe he was a good goalie unless the team went deep into the Playoffs. And then they won - and still the arguments against Niemi's skill set continued.

Oddly enough, it might have been Niemi's own performance - and fellow Finals goalie Michael Leighton - in the Final round that created the softness in the goalie market. Here were two teams riding inexperienced goaltenders through the playoffs. They both had outstanding runs to the Final, but neither looked spectacular in those last six games. High-priced veterans like Luongo and Theodore fell earlier in the playoffs to the likes of Niemi and Halak. Owners breathed a sigh of relief - goaltenders might be the single most important position on the ice, but Niemi winning the Cup was all the proof they needed that overblown contracts would no longer be wasted on the guys guarding the pipes.

Zito gambled with the Blackhawks and ultimately lost, but there's nobody who's really surprised at that outcome. Even though Niemi's $2.75M arbitration ruling could have fit under the salary cap, it would've still left the team pressed hard against the ceiling - and likely have left the Blackhawks team shorthanded to boot, with near-zero safety cushion in the event of long-term injuries. There's no GM that wants that, no matter how much they love a player - unless it was maybe a player of Gretzky or Toews quality. And since everybody else knows the financial jam that Chicago is in, no other team was stepping forward to put Chicago in a position to sign-and-trade him, either.

The Blackhawks, not unexpectedly, had to walk away from the ruling, and their goalie, leaving Niemi an unrestricted free agent. Everybody lost here - Niemi lost his job; the fans lost a popular player and the goalie that helped the team win the Cup; and the Blackhawks lost a goalie that their core team already has excellent chemistry with.

The primary "win" out of this whole deal was that the Blackhawks could finally pay a goalie what they wanted/planned to - under $1.5M - without compromising the rest of the remaining roster. They promptly announced they were signing veteran Marty Turco at a bargain-basement $1.3M for 1 year, a deal that has apparently been quietly awaiting the outcome of Niemi's arbitration for a month. This signing left them enough salary cap space that Blackhawks fans can now exhale, knowing that finally, the team can stop shedding salary, and that some of the prime off-season acquisitions like Viktor Stalberg and Rockford call-ups Jake Dowell and Jack Skille are now firmly on the roster. The team is now looking at a comfortable $3.121M in cap space and has enough room to sign 1 D-man plus up to three others at an average $775K cap hit, or just one defenseman and allow themselves a little breathing room for injuries.

Turco has thus far spent his career (2000-2010) in Dallas, where the team made it to the Playoffs a few times, but didn't see the Final round in any of his years on the team. He had been widely acknowledged as a smart, puck-playing goalie, but his record has been inconsistent over the last several seasons. His overall NHL career average - even including two under-.900 seasons (one of those being 2008-09) - is .911 with 2.31 GAA. His role model is Tony Esposito, and Turco is clearly excited to be coming to join the defending Stanley Cup champion team. With Chicago's defense in front of him, chances are excellent that the team can return deep into the playoffs next spring - and maybe even accomplish the first back-to-back Championships since 1996-97 and 1997-98 seasons (Detroit). Dare to dream it, Chicago fans.

What is particularly appealling about Turco as a goalie for the Hawks - besides his cheaper salary, of course - is is puck-handling abilities, which should pair nicely with Chicago's defensive skill with the puck. There are plenty of people out there ready to doubt the Blackhawks' ability to repeat in 2011, but the core players for the Hawks are still all there - Toews, Kane, Bolland, Hossa, etc - minus the weight of 49 years of pressure and expectations. You give these talented young guys a goalie who already has the established skill with the puck, and it will matter much less about the shuffling of faces on the 3rd and 4th lines. If Turco can establish consistency early, it will prove to be another exciting year for Hawks fans.

Niemi has apparently been quoted as asking his agent after the news, "What now?"

What now, indeed, Nemo? When's the last time that a Stanley Cup-winning goalie was unemployed with the new season fast approaching? Niemi might want to start with getting a new agent. Zito's work might've gotten him to the big game, and may be the primary reason that Niemi may have left negotiations entirely in his hands, but the same may have just cost him his job, too, unless Zito can manage to find him a gig playing for an NHL team that doesn't have a clearly defined number one starter. Zito has said it's unlikely for Niemi to head to any of the European leagues at this point, but then again, choices in the NHL at this point are nearly non-existent; where would Niemi play then? Would he take only a year's contract and see how the market looks in a year, or can he manage to find a multi-year contract somewhere?

There's only one certainty right now: Niemi's salary will likely be under $2.75M, because the goalie market is still incredibly slim, and there are still other, more experienced goalie options on the market - and that was the max value given to him by arbitration. If another team had wanted Niemi badly enough, they would've offered Chicago something in a trade just to get a jump over any other teams in the market who might want him - but Bowman couldn't find a trade partner. Which means that if Niemi wants to stay in the NHL for the 2010-11, he - and his agent - are going to have to compromise, and do so in a hurry.

It will be all the more disappointing for Blackhawks fans if Niemi signs elsewhere for cheap (with the question being why couldn't he have settled for less here), but the salary cap handwriting was on the wall, and everybody could see it - except, apparently, Zito and/or Niemi. There was no room for negotiating: to stay a player on the 2010-11 Blackhawks, you needed to be willing to tighten your belt and suck it up for the team. The message from new players and those who re-signed to the team was clear: they wanted to be in Chicago badly enough that they were willing to take less money to do it - including Chicago's new number one goaltender, who took a 75% cut in salary in order to play with the team that he judged to be the winning contenders.