Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Niemi files for arbitration

The two signings that Blackhawks fans are most anxious to hear about are goalie Antti Niemi and defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson, especially after several fan favorites were dealt away from the team in money-saving moves that were clearly intended to create the cap space necessary to re-sign both players - not to mention that player salaries had to be moved off the books, anyway.

But the club's GM, Stan Bowman, stated quite firmly a few days ago that Niemi and Hjalmarsson "weren't going anywhere", making it clear that re-signing the pair is a priority for the team. Hjalmarsson, at 23, would be a bargain to lock into a long-term contract, as his play is still developing. However, he clearly has enormous potential, so it will be very interesting to hear what is worked out for him; his previous 3-year entry level contract is expiring.

On the other hand is Antti Niemi. Though Niemi was never drafted and he came to the NHL as a free agent, he has certainly made his permanent mark on the league. He was only the fourth rookie goalie to earn his place in Stanley Cup history, and the first Finnish goalie. At 26, he had gained a few years experience playing in Finland's prestigious SM-liiga league, and one year with the Rockford Icehogs before being re-signed with the Blackhawks for a year as a RFA.

This year, he qualified as the Blackhawks backup goalie, barely edging out Icehog teammate Corey Crawford. Trading off duties with Cristobal Huet, and finally clinching the spot as the #1, the pair backstopped the Blackhawks to a team record number of wins and a league-high 11 shutouts (7 of those from Niemi in just 39 games).

And, of course, the team went on to win the Stanley Cup. During the playoffs run, it could be strongly argued that Niemi helped keep the team in the playoffs during some of those games where the rest of the team seemed to be struggling to find their footing early in play. Although his first three rounds were stellar - beating out the likes of Roberto Luongo and Evgeni Nabokov along the way, before facing off against the Flyers' Michael Leighton in what can only be termed a "goal bonanza" for both sides. Ultimately, however, what matters is whose team scores more - or last - and that's where Chicago won out in game 6 in Philadelphia. Niemi also created a new record for rookie wins in the Stanley Cup playoffs - 16 - beating the previous record of 15 held jointly by Cam Ward, Ron Hextall and Patrick Roy.

We know all this, of course, and fans have eagerly awaited news of re-signing Niemi to the team, salary cap woes or no. The Blackhawks have been notoriously inconsistent and/or rotating-door between the pipes for years - from the 2003-04 season, which saw no less than 6 players in goal; to a pricey, 4-year contract with Nikolai Khabibulin, who was plagued with injuries and inconsistent play.

Niemi has raw talent, and perhaps more importantly, he is dedicated and works very hard for his team. He's always seeking to improve, and he doesn't like losing. His ability to bounce back after bad games has practically become a trademark for his style this year, and he posted a remarkable number of shutouts vs. games played in the regular season - 18%.

Niemi has a unique situation. So, inevitably, the question going into salary negotiations for Niemi is: how much, exactly, is a goalie like this worth?

The question is compounded by a flood of goalies into this year's market - including several highly skilled, well-seasoned goaltenders with plenty of good years still ahead of them, as well as rookies and journeymen.

In fact, by getting their teams into the Final round and by one of them winning the Cup, both Niemi and Leighton changed the face of goaltending for the NHL. You can wave goodbye to gigantic, multi-year contracts like the Canucks are currently hoisting for Roberto Luongo. Between the two of them, they collectively earned less than $1.5M last year. Combined with the stellar play of a multitude of low-cost, rookie/entry level goalies like Howard, Rinne, Rask and others who also helped their teams get deep in the playoffs, it created a new face of what a Stanley Cup-contending goalie might look like.

With records like that, who's going to look to overpay a goalie now?

The Chicago Blackhawks have been incredibly tight-lipped about salary and player negotiations, as well they ought to be. At best, it was said that negotiations were under way. 

July 5th was the last day for players to file for arbitration. Most people expected Niemi and Hjalmarsson to already be re-signed by now, but the Blackhawks first had to clear salary off the books. And in Niemi's case, there's the question about what will be done with Cristobal Huet, whose $5+M salary is considered an albatross and a legacy of the Dale Tallon era. Huet could still be a solid goalie for some club, but it clearly isn't going to be Chicago, and many have speculated that he will likely end up in Rockford (Blackhawks AHL affiliate) for the final 2 years of his contract, unless some other team with cap space to spare (hello, NYI) suddenly decides they want to trade for him.

At nearly the last moment, word came through - Niemi had filed for arbitration, as did 30 other players, including recent ex-Hawks Ben Eager and Andrew Ladd. Now, arbitration hearings will take place between July 20th and August 5th; and it is still possible for the team to bang out a contract with him before that date.

Here's the positive things to think about, before we discuss more:

- No other team can tender Niemi an offer sheet while he is in the arbitration process. So this would suggest that they might be close to a decision, but simply need more time to hammer out the details/terms.

- It was the player taking the team to arbitration, not the other way around. This suggests that Niemi would like to return to the Blackhawks, as arbitration basically locks you into negotiation with your team (see item above). Under the NHLPA rules for arbitration, a club can only take a player to arbitration once during that player's history with the club. However, the player can file for arbitration as often as they desire. Unfortunately, once the arbitration committee passes judgment, the club has only 48 hours to choose to accept the ruling, or to lose the player to free agency. If the player becomes a UFA, the team receives no compensation.

- Since the summer of 2003, for those percentage of players who actually went through the process (vs. number who filed), no player has been awarded more than 3X their last year's salary. Most received less. In Niemi's case, his 2009-10 salary was roughly $827K, so even maxing that out to 3X would mean roughly $2.48M/year, which would be doable/affordable under the Blackhawks cap limits right now. Unfortunately, the arbitration process also dictates that whatever figure is decided upon will only be good for 1-2 years, and then it's back to re-negotiating new contracts. Arbitration is a weird beast: the player (or their agent) believes they're worth more money; the player's team has to argue limits as to why the player is only worth so much.

- Most NHL teams already have their #1 goalie locked in and on board, many with fresh contracts for 2-5 years, and it's highly doubtful that Niemi would be eager to change teams only to become any team's #2. At worst, he'd probably be a "#1A/#1B", but my guess would be that his preference would be to the primary #1 - and really, who would blame him for wanting that? But, as noted, the market is loaded with other goalies looking for the same situation.

In mid-June, Niemi's agent, Bill Zito, went on record as saying that he wanted to get the Blackhawks to sign Niemi to the kind of long-range deals like Keith and Hossa have (10+ years). (You can listen to similar discussions by Zito on this radio interview with 670Score.)

The Blackhawks have been both blessed and burned with long-term contracts as of late, however. Obviously, getting to sign the likes of Toews and Kane to 5-year contracts made perfect sense; but the bonuses the two earned this year are creating salary cap issues for the 2010-11 year. Huet got signed into an hefty 4-year contract, and has provided the inconsistent level of play that one would expect from somebody earning a fraction of his salary could've provided. Brian Campbell has proven a solid and important cog on the D-line, but his $7+M/year cap hit will make him virtually untradable.

One would not expect the Blackhawks to be particularly eager to run out and sign anybody to a contract for much more than say, 3-6 years, especially a player with only a year or so of NHL-level experience on the books. It is also extremely unlikely that they team would offer much more than somewhere between $2.5-$3.5M per year, tops - not with established, proven UFA goalies out in the market that could probably be obtained for the same price or less. Even with the post-season player pruning, the Blackhawks still have a formidable core, and the team will still be winners next year.

  • The player's "overall performance" including statistics in all previous seasons.
  • Injuries, illnesses and the number of games played.
  • The player's length of service with the team and in the NHL.
  • The player's "overall contribution" to the team's success or failure.
  • The player's "special qualities of leadership or public appeal."
  • The performance and salary of any player alleged to be "comparable" to the player in the dispute.

  • The salary and performance of a "comparable" player who signed a contract as an unrestricted free agent.
  • Testimonials, video and media reports.
  • The financial state of the team.
  • The salary cap and the state of the team's payroll.

As you can see, there are certain intangibles mixed in with the basics such as statistics. Obviously Niemi was a big part of the playoffs wins; but he also played less than half a season worth of games in the regular season. He has had solid appeal to the local fanbase - but when you compare his salary to other goalies in the same position (minus the Stanley Cup, of course), arbitration would not favor awarding Niemi overly large sums of money or lengthy contracts.

Let's break these down for Niemi and how his agent and/or the Blackhawks might approach these points in arbitration:

The player's "overall performance" including statistics in all previous seasons.

Niemi doesn't have a whole lot to show here on the NHL level, although for somebody in their rookie year, it has certainly been noteworthy. His 2005-08 seasons were with a Finnish league; then his 2008-09 season was spent primarily in Rockford with a couple games in Chicago. During that season, Niemi kept opponents to two or fewer goals 60% of his regular-season appearances.

In 2009-10, of course, his full year was for the Blackhawks, and he put together his best career season yet, with a .912 SV% and just 2.25 GAA in a 26-7 record across 39 regular season games. Compared to the rest of the league, his stats come in as nothing remarkable - 17th in the league for wins; and 20th for SV%, for example. But he was 3rd overall for shutouts (tied), and 4th-best GAA. He had eight 30+ save games during the regular season, and was tied for 5th in the league for shootout victories (6-2), posting an .812% shootout SV%, the best in the league among goaltenders who faced at least 16 attempts.
His playoffs record was actually worse statistically speaking - .910 SV%, 2.63 GAA - but the important part to remember of his post season was of course, helping win the Cup. 

Injuries, illnesses and the number of games played.

Injuries/illnesses - almost none to speak of, and nothing that took him out of the lineup for more than one or two games this year. He played 39 games in the regular season, and then, after having established himself as the starter goalie for the playoffs, played all 22 playoff games. Most starting goalies played more games in the regular season alone than he played in both the regular and playoff season combined (61).

The player's length of service with the team and in the NHL.

This is just Niemi's second year in the NHL, although in the 2008-09 season, he only played 3 games at the NHL level (see above).

The player's "overall contribution" to the team's success or failure.

As the goalie, this is fairly clear; although he also played behind a stellar defense. This is probably the strongest point in Niemi's favor, however, as one could easily argue that there are games in the playoffs that he practically stole for the team.

The player's "special qualities of leadership or public appeal."

There is no doubt that goalies help lead a team in their own way. With confidence in the net, a team can better succeed. And in Chicago, a hockey city that has long gnashed its teeth over questionable goaltending, Niemi has found a warm and receptive fanbase. Just witness the games late in the regular season or during the playoffs, when the home crowd at the UC would be chanting "Ant-ti, Ant-ti."  Chicago, a city in love with its goaltender? That's a concept that's been inconceivable for most of the past decade.

The performance and salary of any player alleged to be "comparable" to the player in the dispute.Non-admissible: The salary and performance of a "comparable" player who signed a contract as an unrestricted free agent.

In other words, who would be comparable to Niemi at this point? One need only look at his closest counterpart, journeyman Michael Leighton, who faced off against Niemi in the Stanley Cup Final. Leighton was rewarded with a 2-year/$3.1M (total) contract, and it's still a little questionable if he'll be a "true #1", or a "1A/1B" goalie. Fellow playoff savior Jaroslav Halák has not had his salary/contract signed by his new club, the St Louis Blues, yet, so there are no figures to compare there has now been signed to a 4-year, $15M deal ($3.75M/yr salary cap hit), announced this afternoon.

The closest player to Niemi's situation might be Cam Ward, who won a Stanley Cup for Carolina in his rookie season; but later went on to re-sign with Carolina for a staggering $6.3M/year in a NTC-contract that will last through the 2015-16 season. Has he been worth it? His record with the Hurricanes, including his rookie year, is 138-100, so the answer there would probably be "no".

With the announcement of Halák's new salary deal, the prediction would then become: signing Niemi at a more comfortable figure of say, $3.5M at a slightly longer term (5-8 yrs). This would make him affordable if the team ever decided to trade him, while fitting him under the current salary cap. Niemi's agent seems bent on getting a long-term contract and that may hurt negotiations more than anything.

Other items that are non-admissible:

Testimonials, video and media reports.

No emotional appeals, pleas, or articles that wax poetic. Arbitration is about the facts, not the warm fuzzies.

The financial state of the team; and The salary cap and the state of the team's payroll.

It's clear public knowledge what the Blackhawks salary cap situation is, but this cannot be used against them, nor in their favor. Arbitration decides on a value for a player's services, gives a 1 or 2-year term, and the team either agrees to it within 48 hours, or they pass. If they pass, the player becomes a UFA and the team will get no compensation for losing the player from RFA status.

I do not know Niemi personally - certainly not enough to make quote-worthy statements about him. If I had to make a judgement call, I'd say I think he seems like a typical Finn: hardworking, modest, loyal. In interviews throughout the season, including the playoffs, he has seemed awed, humbled, amazed by the reactions that fans have given to his play. (Just look up videos from game 2 against the Flyers - CSNChicago and YouTube). You'd think that playing a year like he has had in Chicago would mean something: going from obscurity to Stanley-Cup-winning goalie; embraced by a team and its city and its fans.

If I had to guess, I would lay my bets that Niemi would prefer to stay with the team and city that made him a star within the NHL. Now his agent has to do what he can to make that happen. Zito should recognize that a shorter-term contract - say 3-6 years - would be just as beneficial if not more so than a longer-term contract, because assuming Niemi's play continues to improve, it will put him in a better position once that contract expires to angle for more money or a longer extension.

So what is of more value to Niemi, personally, here: staying in the city where he made his mark, or getting a big salary, or a long contract? Is his agent, Bill Zito, pushing all the buttons and doing all the talking/negotiating, and Niemi is simply trusting him to do right by him? Would Niemi take a longer contract for less money to stay in Chicago?

As we have been reminded over and over in the past month, however, hockey is ultimately a business. The players deserve to be paid their worth; but the clubs must also make money, and there's strict limits about how much money everybody can get paid.

Chicago doesn't seem ready to throw a long-term/"lifetime" contract at anybody; they still bear the scars of recent long-term contracts that have burned them or come back to haunt them. Niemi also deserves a worthwhile raise and certainly looks like he could provide the kind of stability in net that the Blackhawks have craved and needed for years.

With Niemi filing for arbitration, they've both managed to buy some fresh time to work out the details to make things work - and make it work in favor of both the player and the club. 

Let's hope they can.


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