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Antti Niemi opts for salary arbitration with Chicago

Jul 5, 2010, 8:18 PM EDT

Niemi10.jpgWhile other salary arbitration filings have gone down today, one of the more interesting filings today was done by Chicago’s Stanley Cup winning goaltender Antti Niemi.

Niemi’s Chicago-based agent Bill Zito, who confirmed the filing, and Hawks general manager Stan Bowman continue to discuss various opportunities for long-term and short-term deals.

A date for the arbitration hearing for a one-year deal is expected to be established in the next few weeks.

Arbitration is an interesting situation when it happens in hockey dealings. While it’s a bit of a more sensible thing when it happens in Major League Baseball, the NHL process has a reputation for being cutthroat and nasty. For instance, there’s a bit of a legendary story dating back to the late 90s when it comes to the past dealings of former Isles general manager Mike Milbury going through arbitration with one-time netminder Tommy Salo.

Islanders G.M. Mike Milbury, as only Mad Mike can do, spewed vitriol against his budding goalie. In Milbury’s mind, Salo’s mental approach was suspect, and he was in danger of losing his job to a rookie the next season. Milbury also said Salo was one of the worst-conditioned athletes on the team, and his performance was inconsistent.

Salo was reduced to tears. He won 23 games the next season, but the relationship was never the same, and he was dealt to the Oilers in March 1999.

That’s not to say that other general managers are as rough and nasty as Milbury when it comes to arbitration, but the NHL process basically asks for the general manager to make arguments as to why he shouldn’t pay the player what the player is asking for. It’s a bad scene because you’re just asking for problems in the future when it comes to contract negotiations. By the way, the rookie that Salo was in danger of eventually losing his job to? 1997 first-round pick Roberto Luongo, who Milbury later traded to the Florida Panthers to make room to draft Rick DiPietro first overall in the 2000 NHL draft. 

Obviously, Chicago GM Stan Bowman figures to be a bit more savvy than Mad Mike was and expecting Niemi and Bowman to go to arbitration might be perilous either way. Chicago could argue that the free agent goalie market dictates that Niemi shouldn’t get a huge contract because no elite goaltender has signed a contract and the ones that have signed for very reasonable deals (like Michael Leighton did). We polled PHT readers a few weeks ago to judge what you thought Niemi’s value was and the going rate was between $2 million and $3 million dollars. Those numbers could prove to be accurate. You guys are pretty smart after all.

Niemi can counter right back saying that he’s the only goalie this off-season that won the Stanley Cup last year and that he’s at least worth more and is more valuable than the other goalie on the roster in Cristobal Huet. Should it come to that, the Blackhawks had better hope that the judge doesn’t  know much about hockey or else you can back the Brinks truck up at Antti Niemi’s house.

Chicago, in the meantime, should be trying to get Niemi locked away for a long-term deal of some variety. Should they only sign him to a one-year deal, Niemi is set to become an unrestricted free agent next year because he’ll be 27 years-old then.

  1. moustache - Jul 6, 2010 at 1:25 AM

    I think the moves made by the Hawks have all been mindful of Niemi and Hjalmarsson and this is yet another interesting wrinkle, as they are now forced to watch the chips fall where they may. Based on the player movement thus far, the Hawks should have roughly $5M to sign these two. Considering they are both RFA’s and the threshold for 1st and 3rd round compensation lies at $2.6M, the Hawks have a good shot to bag both; yet with a razor thin margin of error.
    Should there be a team willing to cough up the picks, or should arbitration prove to cross that line, there is no way the Hawks keep both players. If neither scenario holds true, it may be in both players best interest to take a small home town discount on a short term deal with the hope of striking it rich long term thereafter.
    While there are a few quality netminders left on the market, the same cannot be said for blueliners. Hjalmarson is arguably the more proven player (Niemi appeared in only 61 games), yet the team would be razor thin at goaltender without Niemi or Huet, while blueliners are the strong suit of the team’s in system prospects. The juxtaposition makes for a highly volatile situation that could directly impact whether or not the Hawks manage to achieve continued excellence, or fall victim to the commensurate nature of the salary cap era.

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