Friday, July 30, 2010

Niemi's arbitration case is heard; now it's hurry up and wait

Blackhawks fans are looking at each other in amazement and asking each other, "How did it come to this?"

Antti Niemi's arbitration case was heard this morning in Toronto. The Finnish goalie was present; he flew in specifically for the hearing before heading back to his home country. According to an article in the Sun-Times tonight, Niemi wasn't going to be at this weekend's upcoming Blackhawks Convention anyway, but if the timing of the arbitration hearing was just a day or two earlier, fans would know who the 2010-11 starter goalie is going to be.

ViewFromMySeats.com wrote a very good article today about what it would feel like to go through arbitration. Whoever took the other party to arbitration goes first, and one party tries to sell themselves (generally the player) while the other party (usually the team) tries to convince the arbitrator that the guy isn't worth as much money as he wants. The two look at each other sheepishly - the player for daring to wanting a raise, and the team for wanting to keep the player but having to tear them down.

What fun.

Everybody wants Niemi to stay a Blackhawk. Niemi has said he wants it, his agent wants it, the team wants it, the fans want it.

So why wasn't a deal struck before the arbitration hearing?

Niemi and his agent, Bill Zito, both know the Blackhawks are hard-strapped against salary cap restraints. The team has steadily shed salary through trades or simply not re-signing since winning the Cup on June 9th: Byfuglien. Eager. Sopel. Versteeg. Burish. Fraser. Madden. All important parts of the winning team; all popular with fans; now scattered to other teams around the league. And unless some team suddenly decided they wanted to do the Blackhawks a huge favor by taking on the remainder of Brian Campbell's sizeable $7.1M/yr contract - which would give the Blackhawks breathing room in more ways than one - there's not too much more salary that the team can get rid of before it faces the risk of not being able to field a full team on the ice next season. The team currently consists of a core of high-salary players (Toews, Kane, Keith, Hossa, Seabrook, Campbell, Sharp, Bolland, Hjalmarsson) with a couple mid-range players (Kopecky, Brouwer) and a handful of bargain players to fill out the roster.

They still need a goalie and a few more regular skaters.

The two key players that fans and sports writers most expected the Blackhawks to re-sign were Niemi and defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson. Unfortunately, in choosing to pursue Niemi's contract first, the team ended up being surprised in the middle of training camp by the announcement an offer sheet from San Jose for Hjalmarsson - which the 23-year-old Swede signed to the tune of $3.5M/yr for 4 years.

Just a few days earlier, Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman had confidently told the press that both Hjalmarsson and Niemi weren't going anywhere. Imagine if the Blackhawks had managed to lock in Hjalmarsson for $2.5-$3M/year instead of the $3.5M/year that San Jose forced on the team; they would probably have locked in both Hjalmarsson and Niemi by now. The team might not given Niemi as much as he/his agent were looking for, but it could've been a better raise than the suggestion of $2M that has been floating around in the rumor mills over the past several days.

Niemi's situation is unique. Here's a player who was driving his team's Zamboni in Finland to make ends meet just three years ago. His agent got NHL teams interested in him by promoting him by DVD. He beat out Corey Crawford for the backup goalie position and eventually bested Cristobal Huet for the starter position. He finished out the season with less than half a season worth of regular-season games played (39) yet 7 shutouts. He was just the 4th rookie goalie to win the Cup, with a 16-6 record that included 2 more shutouts.

His salary for the 2009-10 season was $826,875 - a very respectable figure for a rookie player. Tripling that would take it to $2.48M; quadrupling it would bring it to $3.31M. (Hjalmarsson's 2009-10 salary by comparison was $666K and his new $3.5M/yr is more than quintupling it.)

The Blackhawks simply can't afford that kind of raise. Most speculate that $2-$2.5M for Niemi would be comfortable; $2.5-$3M a squeeze but doable; and anything over $3M just not possible.

Niemi knows it; Zito knows it. Every hockey fan out there with a CapGeek bookmarked in their browser knows it.

So if Niemi wants to stay a Blackhawk so badly, why hasn't he given the team that made him famous, a record-maker (first Finnish goalie to win the Cup; just the 4th rookie), a Stanley Cup ring in his first full year in the NHL, and given him the chance to prove himself, a 1-year salary break? So that next year, once he's proven himself again and the Blackhawks have gotten past their salary cap crunch, he would actually be in a far better position to negotiate both a larger salary figure and a longer-term contract?

Only Niemi and his agent could answer that.

Fans were baffled to hear that Niemi was taking the team to arbitration. It's probably been two dozen years or more since a Stanley Cup-winning goalie wasn't with the same team the following season. It simply doesn't happen that often. Despite the team's salary cap issues (and other apparent money issues), the Hawks want to retain his services.

Niemi has said next to nothing in the press, and his agent hasn't said much more. In fact, Zito has made it sound like it's entirely the team's issue to cough up a larger figure - or possibly a longer contract, or both.

The goalie market at this point is tight. Most teams have their #1s and backups in place, although there have certainly been plenty of rumors about which teams might be willing to make room on the roster if Niemi became available as a UFA. The two goalies considered best in the remaining UFA market - Jose Theodore (formerly with the Capitals) and Marty Turco (career-long Stars goalie) are both in their mid-30s, and either would have to take a sizeable reduction in salary to fit within the Blackhawks salary cap picture. But it's a good bet that either would take it to get another year or two in the NHL on the defending champions of Lord Stanley's fabled chalice. Neither has ever won the Cup, so it would also give either of them a chance on a team that will still be contenders in 2011, even if they're not quite the same team as they were in 2010.

Stan Bowman has said that the Blackhawks have mapped out a variety of decisions based on the arbitration outcome, which should be announced Saturday, if not earlier.

It'll be a long wait.

1 comment:

  1. Considering the LOW percentage of arbitration filings that actually go before the arbitrator, I have to think that all parties concerned may have thought this could be worked out earlier - really, the primary usefulness of filing for arbitration lies in its ability to get people to compromise. Considering the various players the Hawks have signed already, I can't help but wonder if the Hawks aren't as sold on Niemi as a lot of folks are. Oh, I know it's heresy to speak in such a way about a goalie who's just led his team to the Promised Land, but IF there's an element in the Hawks' hierarchy that gives more credit to team defense than to goaltending, it could have the effect of lowering the price they'd be willing to pay for Niemi. For the sake of public relations, they wouldn't want to say that publicly, aware as they are of Niemi's many fans, but I wonder whether Niemi/Zito counted on Niemi being valued more highly than he is. However this dispute comes out, it seems likely that we're going to have a much better fix on Niemi's ability and prospects after the coming season - assuming he can play the entire season as somebody's #1 goalie.

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