The Curious Arbitration Case of Antti Niemi and the Blackhawks
Antti Niemi is the No. 1 goaltender of the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. The parade was just six weeks ago. The goalie doesn't turn 27 years old for another month. His NHL career consists of just 42 regular season and 27 playoff games.
The Blackhawks love Niemi, a quiet, calming influence between the pipes and behind a cast of characters. The goalie from Finland doesn't want to play for any hockey franchise on the planet other than the Chicago Blackhawks. For perspective, just three years ago Niemi took a second job as the Zamboni driver at his Finnish team's rink to make a few extra bucks.
And yet in a conference room in a Toronto hotel on Thursday morning, Niemi, his agent, Hawks management and a couple of lawyers are arguing -- respectfully, there is no doubt -- over how much the No. 1 goaltender of the defending Stanley Cup champions is worth.
If Niemi's business team does a good job and an arbitrator awards him every dollar he deserves, the Blackhawks might have to walk away from their beloved goalie and sign someone else for a lot less. All because Chicago is still pushing the limits of the CBA-mandated salary cap.
Wouldn't that be something? Reports of the "core" of the Blackhawks being torn apart in the weeks since Patrick Kane's Game 6 overtime Cup-winner in Philadelphia have been exaggerated for dramatic effect. Several good players, several key players, have been traded for salary cap purposes. Andrew Ladd, who reportedly settled with the Thrashers for one year and $2.35 million before his own arbitration hearing Thursday, and Kris Versteeg (now a Maple Leaf) made up two-thirds of one of the best third lines in recent memory. Dustin Byfuglien was a cult hero turned Cup hero in Chicago. Like Ladd, he was acquired by Rick Dudley in Atlanta. Fourth-liners John Madden, Adam Burish and Ben Eager were warriors and invaluable leaders in the locker room. However, if general manager Stan Bowman and his staff know what they are doing -- evidence suggests they do -- all of the above are replaceable.
Niemi is not -- at least not by any of the goaltenders still left on the unrestricted free agent market. Certainly not by someone the Blackhawks might be able to sign for $1 million instead of the $2.5-$3.5 million Niemi could be awarded. None of this can be used as comparable in an arbitration case, but consider two events in the NHL marketplace over the last week. In arbitration, third-line forward Clarke MacArthur was awarded $2.4 million for scoring 16 goals combined over 81 games last year with Buffalo and Atlanta (the Thrashers walked away from MacArthur, as is their right). For the more accomplished scorer Matt Moulson (30 goals), the Islanders settled with his agent on a contract for $2.45 million for the coming season.
For all of their talents, MacArthur and Moulson did not play in a single playoff game last season. What does the Stanley Cup-winning goalie deserve?
An arbitrator with nothing on the line is going to decide over the next 48 hours. The Blackhawks only have two options. They can accept the decision, pay Niemi and make another roster decision. Or they could say goodbye to the 26-year-old goalie from Finland who was one of their five most valuable players when Chicago won its first Stanley Cup in 49 years. Bill Zito, Niemi's agent, has very publicly stated that this arbitration case is all about salary cap management and is nothing personal.
Hockey is a business. This is something else.