CHICAGO (AP) -Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville keeps repeating that he's "excited" about the Stanley Cup championship team's upside potential, even after shedding seven players to remain under the NHL's salary cap.
Quenneville believes goalie Antti Niemi is among those players with a bright future, even if Niemi becomes the eighth Blackhawk trimmed from the team's roster due to financial constraints.
An arbitrator is scheduled to award Niemi a one-year salary figure no later than Saturday night, following a hearing in Toronto on Thursday. Niemi, a restricted free agent, filed for arbitration after his agent, Bill Zito, and Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman couldn't reach contract terms.
Niemi became the team's top goalie last season and then backstopped them their first Cup in 49 years. The issue is whether Blackhawks can squeeze the 26-year-old Finn under the NHL's $59.4 million salary cap in 2010-11.
"When he played regularly he just got better and better and he's very consistent," said Quenneville on Friday before the opening of the Blackhawks' annual fan convention. "He handles big games like any game and he welcomes all challenges.
"His upside is still in place and goalies usually mature later. He's not a 20-year-old, but in goalie development stages, he's still got a lot of good years ahead of him."
The arbitrator's decision will determine if Chicago re-signs Niemi and keeps him, walks away from the salary rendering him an unrestricted free agent or accepts the amount and then trades the goalie before the start of the season.
"There are business decisions, but you'd like to say there are little hockey decisions behind them as well," Quenneville said. "Obviously, we're in a tough spot (with the a salary cap), but want to enhance our team and our future as well."
Chicago defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson hopes Niemi returns. The 23-year-old signed an offer sheet with San Jose as a restricted free agent earlier this month before the Blackhawks matched the Sharks' four-year, $14 million deal.
"I like him not just as a hockey player, he was a good friend of mine, too," Hjalmarsson said. "I know it's going to be tough, he's a great goalie and he won the Cup for us. To be honest with you, it doesn't surprise me too much that he played the way he did last year."
Niemi, a rookie last season, played all but one period of the Blackhawks postseason run to the championship, going 16-6 with a 2.63 goals-against average, .910 save percentage and two shutouts.
Niemi, who earned $826,875 in 2009-10, has played in just 42 regular-season games in his career. In 39 regular-season contest last season, went 26-7-4 with seven shutouts, a 2.25 goals-against average and .912 save percentage.
Many of the current Blackhawks attended the convention, but Niemi didn't. Team officials said 10,000 tickets were sold for the event at a downtown hotel.
Blackhawks chairman Rocky Wirtz confirmed Friday that the family-owned team lost money last season, despite selling out every home game at the 20,500-seat United Center. He doesn't expect the team be profitable for "four or five years."
"Just because you fill the place up and win the Stanley Cup doesn't mean you're in the black," Wirtz said. "But the nice thing is we have light at the end of the tunnel and we're going to be there."
The Blackhawks plan to increase ticket prices an average of 20 percent, team officials confirmed.
"We'll modestly and judiciously look at our ticket prices every year," Wirtz said.
Although his team has lost players and could lose Niemi because of the league's salary cap, Wirtz said the Blackhawks would be worse off with the payroll limit.
"We took a year off (the 2004-05 lockout) for a reason, to drag down the salaries so they just weren't just escalating out of control and the Blackhawks are a good example," Wirtz said. We'd probably have our salaries up 40 percent if we didn't have a hard cap."