CHICAGO – It's already been a festive weekend at the Chicago Blackhawks' fan convention, and the party could turn up a notch if the team agrees to an arbitrator's awarded salary for goalie Antti Niemi.
Niemi’s agent, Bill Zito, confirmed to NHL.com that the goaltender was awarded a salary of $2.75 million for the upcoming season. That would be a significant raise from the $800,000 that he made this past season while leading Chicago to its first Stanley Cup in 49 years.
"I think the arbitrator did a good job with this and we're happy with the award," Zito said. "The difficult part is that Antti is sitting in Finland right now for another day and half wondering what's going to happen."
The waiting will likely continue until at least Sunday or Monday. The team has up to 48 hours to respond.
Niemi, 26, was 26-7-4 for the Blackhawks with a 2.25 goals-against average and .912 save percentage in 39 regular-season games in 2009-10, supplanting Cristobal Huet as the Hawks' top goalie. In the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Niemi was 16-6 with a 2.63 GAA and .910 save percentage as the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup.
The arbitration award is potentially workable for the salary cap-squeezed Hawks, who've had to say goodbye to eight players from last season's roster already in order to get under the NHL's hard $59.4 million salary cap.
The Hawks basically have three options.
They could agree to the amount awarded and keep Niemi. They could agree to the award and then trade him at that salary figure in order to clear more cap space. Or they could choose to walk away from the offer, make Niemi an unrestricted free agent and sign another unrestricted free agent goaltender -- presumably for less money.
With Niemi earning $2.75 million, the Hawks could conceivably field a roster of either 20 or 21 players and still stay under the cap even with Niemi in the fold -- but that's contingent on not having Huet's $5.6 million cap hit, which is another situation General Manager Stan Bowman needs to address.
Bowman was not available for comment Saturday at the convention, held at the Chicago Hilton.
According to numbers from capgeek.com, a 21-man roster would mean adding nine players within the Hawks' farm system whose cap hits are less than $900,000 each, including newly acquired wing Viktor Stalberg, defenseman John Scott, 23-year-old forward Jack Skille and 24-year-old power forward Bryan Bickell.
That would leave the Hawks roughly $250,000 under the cap, which is a very slim injury cushion.
Zito said earlier this week that the arbitration process was difficult for Niemi, who'd hoped to get a deal done before Thursday's hearing in Toronto. Bowman said Friday that he didn't sense any discontent from the goalie when he spoke to him.
"I talked to him beforehand and said to him, ‘This is part of the game, there's nothing wrong with it,'" Bowman said. "(Arbitration is) actually in there for the players, so that they know they can get a contract. People forget that he filed for arbitration. We didn't. He wanted the assurance that he would have a contract as opposed to negotiations.
"We've got ideas in place," Bowman said on Friday. "We'll just wait and see how it plays out."
Bowman also said he's trying not to let it consume every second of his weekend.
"You don't want to focus on it too much," he said before the convention. "We've got a lot of great things happening here. We're here at the convention as the Stanley Cup champions, and it's a great event in a normal year, let alone a Cup year. You don't want that to take away from the excitement of the weekend."