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Arbitration award will determine Niemi?s future

by Brian Hedger /
CHICAGO -- It's back to the waiting game for all interested in Antti Niemi's arbitration hearing, which took place Thursday morning in Toronto.

Both Niemi's side and the Chicago Blackhawks made their arguments before an arbitrator, then left still wondering what the next course of action will be. It's all dependent on what salary figure the arbitrator decides for the 26-year-old Niemi, a restricted free agent who started every playoff game in Chicago's run to its first Stanley Cup in 49 years.

If the figure is low enough, Hawks GM Stan Bowman said he will squeeze Niemi onto the payroll without sacrificing too much more from the team that finally brought the Cup back to Chicago. If it's too high, the Hawks could walk away from the awarded amount and make Niemi an unrestricted free agent or accept it and trade him in order to stay under the League's hard salary cap of $59.4 million for the coming season.

"Our situation is tight," Bowman said during a teleconference call on Thursday evening. "Depending on where (the award) is, that's going to kind of drive the boat here."

Bowman would love to have Niemi back in a Hawks sweater, but he realized that might not happen. Niemi is now a Stanley Cup winning goaltender, which could easily mean a higher salary awarded than the Hawks can afford while still fielding a full roster under the cap.

"Of course it would be a loss, but the nature of sports is that change does happen," Bowman said. "My job is to try and find a way to make things work if that's a necessity. You kind of have to embrace change and realize it's an opportunity for somebody else."

No matter what figure the arbitrator decides, Niemi stands to earn a lot more than the roughly $800,000 he made last season. Still, that's not much consolation for not reaching a deal before the hearing. That fact apparently doesn't sit well with Niemi nor those in his camp.

"He's disappointed he has to go through this," Niemi's agent Bill Zito told on Thursday evening. "It's been very difficult for him. But with that said, we asked for it. When you file for arbitration, you have to live with the consequences. We just hoped it wouldn't get to this point."

Niemi flew five hours from Finland on Wednesday to attend the hearing and then flew back, with a stopover in Germany, on Thursday afternoon. Zito said he didn't have a good feeling when leaving the hearing, but not because he fears the decision going in favor of the Hawks.

"I just felt bad for Antti Niemi," said Zito, who, like Bowman, described the proceedings as civil and professional. "It's a difficult process. It's just hard on him. It's like, ‘It's got to go to arbitration when no one else (on the Hawks) does?'"

The arbitrator told the two sides to expect a decision on Saturday, but could also ask for an extension -- as she did in a separate case on Thursday morning. So, the waiting game could go even longer.

Regardless, both sides are prepared to either rejoin or part ways within the next few days. Bowman said the Hawks have checked into some unrestricted free agent goalies on the market and he also fielded phone calls with potential trade partners.

The Hawks also have cheaper in-house options in 25-year old Corey Crawford and 26-year-old Hannu Toivonen. Still, Bowman is not tipping his hand until an amount is awarded.

"We're planning for lots of different scenarios," he said. "I don't know that we're weighing any one (option) more than any other."

Bowman again cited the team's tight payroll as the main problem in not only keeping Niemi, but all the regular contributors shipped away this offseason. That problem was exacerbated by performance bonuses totaling roughly $4 million that must be counted toward the coming season's cap -- and by an unexpected San Jose offer sheet the Hawks matched for young defenseman Niklas Hjalmarrson worth $2.5 million a season.

"We have a structure that we have to work within," Bowman said. "Depending on where (Niemi's arbitration award) comes in, it's going to dictate what we have to do. There are numbers that we have in mind which would make it (easier) to fit (Niemi) in."

Niemi's side, however, isn't buying that as an excuse for the deal not getting done.

"I would have thought it would have gotten done anyway," Zito said.

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