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Hawks turn to Turco after walking away from Niemi

by Dan Rosen
The Stanley Cup champions will have a new No. 1 goalie to start the 2010-11 season.

The Chicago Blackhawks announced Monday that they are walking away from the arbitration award given to Antti Niemi and instead have signed free-agent goalie Marty Turco to a one-year contract reportedly worth between $1 million and $1.5 million. Niemi now becomes an unrestricted free agent less that two months after helping the Blackhawks win their first Stanley Cup since 1961.

An arbitrator ruled Saturday that Niemi's contract award would be one year for $2.75 million. The Blackhawks, who are already tight against the $59.4 million salary cap, viewed that as too high and opted to walk away.

Blackhawks General Manager Stan Bowman said on a conference call that they had offered Niemi several different contract options both prior to last Thursday's arbitration hearing in Toronto and after it, but all were turned down. Bowman said one of the offers was for a multiyear contract.

"We've exhausted all of our options with Antti Niemi … and never were able to work it out," Bowman said. "We decided to go in another direction. I'm really excited for the direction we're heading in here. Marty has an accomplished record in the League and I think he's going to complement our team. I know he's hungry for a Stanley Cup and we're hungry to defend the Cup."

Niemi, who turns 27 at the end of the month, went 26-7-4 with a 2.25 goals-against average and a .912 save percentage in 39 regular-season appearances. He was 16-6 with a 2.63 GAA and .912 save percentage while leading the Hawks to their first Stanley Cup in 49 years.

Turco, who turns 35 on Aug. 13, spent nine seasons in Dallas, compiling a 262-154-26 record. He was 22-20-11 this past season with a 2.72 GAA and a .913 save percentage. The Stars haven't made the playoffs since 2008 and traded for Kari Lehtonen in February, telling Turco he would not be in their future plans.

After becoming a free agent on July 1, Turco said he was holding out hope -- he turned down some contract offers -- that an opportunity with Chicago would arise. He said his interest in signing with the Hawks started to rise prior to the start of the 2010 playoffs.

"The understatement of my summer is how excited I am to be a part of this organization," said Turco, who is in St. Andrews, Scotland, on vacation with several friends. "I have played a long time and seen a lot of ups and downs in the NHL, been around some good teams and the last few years of not making the playoffs cemented my belief in how I work and what makes me tick, and that's to have an opportunity to win. That's what the Chicago Blackhawks, from top to bottom, are all about."

Bowman said there is no bitterness toward Niemi or his agent, Bill Zito. He spoke to Niemi at the arbitration hearing on Thursday and told him no matter what happens they will always walk together as champions.

"He smiled and said, 'It was a great season, they can't take that away from us,' " Bowman said. "He's a great kid, a very good goalie."

But Bowman felt letting Niemi walk and signing Turco to a one-year contract and a reported figure than the arbitration award was "the direction that made the most sense."

"The decision we made was in the best interest of the franchise for the short term and the long term this season," Bowman added. "You have to have flexibility within your roster and the cap situation has been well documented here. This was the best way for us to approach the team as we prepare to defend the cup in October."

The Hawks still have to add a defenseman -- they have five under contract and Jordan Hendry is a restricted free agent -- but other than that, Bowman believes the team "is in order."

"(Niemi) was a big part of it clearly, but we're on to the next thing," Bowman said. "I'm very, very excited to have someone of Marty's caliber in our organization. You have to look forward. That's really the message I'm trying to get across. We had a great season last year, but we're looking forward."

After winning the Stanley Cup, this summer has been all about change for the Hawks.

With Niemi out of the picture, that means eight of the 19 players that skated for Chicago in the Cup-clinching game in Philadelphia on June 9 are no longer on the team. Cristobal Huet, who was Niemi's backup during the playoffs and shared the job during the regular season, may also be a goner.

Huet's cap hit for the upcoming season is $5.625 million, a number that is likely unmanageable for Bowman and the Hawks, who also want to bring in 25-year-old  Corey Crawford, their second-round pick in 2003, as Turco's backup.

Bowman said he anticipates "tackling Huet over the next few weeks here." His options are to either trade the goalie, which seems unlikely based on his salary, or get rid of the cap hit by assigning him to the American Hockey League or somewhere overseas.

"We're going to focus on Huet here now that we have settled this situation," Bowman said.

Bowman added that Huet's situation did not in any way factor into the decision to let Niemi walk and sign Turco.

"The salary cap has been talked about probably too much over the last month here," Bowman said. "I understand why that's the case. It's the system we play under, but maybe we should focus on the fact that we have an accomplished goalie (Turco) that wanted to be in Chicago, and that goes a long way."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl

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