Capologists and ‘Hawks fans alike busted out the calculators in wake of Niklas Hjalmarsson’s spankin’ new 4-year, $14 million contract thanks to those sore-loser San Jose Sharks. While the past few days may not have rivaled “The Decision,” a la LeBron James, the ‘Hawks considered a looming variable: Keep Hammer, and risk losing Chicago’s first Stanley Cup-winning goaltender in 49 years.
It’s widely speculated Jarslov Halak’s contract with the St. Louis Blues — coming in at a $3.75 million cap hit — will be a benchmark for Antti Niemi’s award following his July 29 arbitration hearing. It’s obvious this may be the case, given that Neimi’s statistics are comparable to Halak’s numbers in relation to each player’s time served in the NHL and Niemi’s shiny new ring.
If the arbitrator rules Niemi deserves a similar salary, the Blackhawks have 48 hours to decide whether or not to accept the decision and pay him, or whether to lose exclusive negotiations and the right to simply match other offers and let him walk as an unrestricted free agent. In a strange twist of fate, working with the mentality Cristobal Huet’s cap hit is buried in the minors, the latter may end up benefiting the Blackhawks — and here’s why.
Despite playoff success — which, of course, Niemi possess more of than Halak — the two goaltenders are vastly different in the eyes of NHL personnel and the fans they’re responsible for putting in the seats. Halak has star power in the public eye — he’s outspoken, animated at times on the ice and he greatly contributed to knocking out of the playoffs the two biggest stars in the game, Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin.
It shouldn’t be a secret Halak’s image soared on a team of relatively unknowns and past-their-prime players as it slayed hockey giants. Halak was in demand as much for his star power as he was for his performance in 18 playoff games.
Niemi doesn’t have star power. He’s quiet, seemingly aloof and won’t be the main attraction for any paying fan. For as well as he played at times in the playoffs and in the regular season, he was regarded as the weak link on an otherwise stellar Blackhawks team. Though Halak’s playoff success carried him to his current popularity, Niemi’s resulted in a simple ho-hum. The view is the ‘Hawks won more in spite of Niemi rather than because of him.
Niemi just may be a better goaltender than Halak, and the arbitrator may feel he deserves Halak-like money, but no one is going to be kicking his door down to give it to him — including the Blackhawks. I’m not convinced even if if the Blackhawks had cap space to work with they’d shell out that type of money for him. If the Blackhawks don’t believe Niemi to be worth that type of money just yet, what’s to say other teams will be so willing to devote nearly $4 million per year to a goaltender with 27 regular season wins? Proven, yet aging, goaltenders like Marty Turco are on the market at a discounted rate. The Blackhawks know that, too.
The Blackhawks view Niemi as a valuable asset, but not valuable enough to lose a second-tier defenseman to an in-conference power for what may turn out to be the same money. The ‘Hawks felt Hjalmarsson would be a bigger loss than Niemi, and they proved that by matching the Sharks’ offer sheet.
If the ‘Hawks allow Niemi to test unrestricted free agency, it may end up working in their favor. Which team goes after him at that price? Edmonton? Possibly Columbus considering Steve Mason’s disaster-filled sophomore season? That would just put Niemi in another goaltender controversy. Ottawa? The options are thin. Even if any of these teams came after Niemi, will he take a larger paycheck and more pressure to carry a team which will rely on him for its success? Personally, I don’t even think a team is ready to make that commitment to him, no matter if he believes he’s ready for it or not.
Niemi’s best bet would be to return to a cushy situation in Chicago at a discounted rate, sit between the pipes behind stellar defensive units and be neither the savior nor the sore thumb. The ‘Hawks want Niemi back, but only if he fits into their cap plans — not only for this season, but for the future.
Bottom line, I’m not sure if we need to start worrying just yet whether or not the Blackhawks are going to end up losing Brian Campbell and/or Patrick Sharp in order to clear space for Niemi’s pending arbitration ruling, as well as the rest of the restricted free agents needing deals just so the ‘Hawks can field a team next season.
If it comes down to it, the Blackhawks have made clear they’ll find a cheaper, suitable replacement for Niemi on the open market. My guess? Niemi ends up back with the Blackhawks for much less than we anticipated — be it a contract agreement before the arbitration hearing, or once Niemi sees there’s no NHL team out there willing to shell out the cash for him.
With the way this off-season has gone, nothing is outside the realm of possibility.