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Niemi has plenty of potential new homes

by Dave Lozo
Goaltender Antti Niemi certainly didn't expect to be leaving the Chicago Blackhawks so soon after winning the 2010 Stanley Cup. But with the team's decision to walk away from a $2.75 million arbitration award, Niemi now is looking for a team to call his own. Luckily for the goaltender, there appear to be a number of options.

Washington Capitals

Goaltenders signed: Semyon Varlamov, Michal Neuvirth
The Capitals are on the record as saying they are content to go with their young goaltenders this season. But that was before Niemi became available. Varlamov and Neuvirth have played a combined 54 regular-season games, while Varlamov left a lot to be desired during the Caps' first-round loss to the Montreal Canadiens in the playoffs last season. Would Niemi have been good enough to help the Caps close out the Canadiens after gaining a 3-1 lead in the series? Niemi could be the difference between another postseason disappointment and a deep run in the playoffs in 2011.

San Jose Sharks

Goaltenders signed: Antero Niittymaki, Thomas Greiss
After Evgeni Nabokov found the NHL free-agent market not to his liking, he bolted for big money in the KHL. That led to the Sharks signing Niittymaki, whose postseason experience is comprised of two relief appearances. Niittymaki has never had a team as good as the Sharks playing in front of him and his two-year, $4 million contract could wind up being a bargain. But it wouldn't be surprising if the Sharks felt the need to bring in Niemi as an insurance policy. After all, the Sharks have a pretty good idea of what a difference-maker Niemi could be after he played out of his mind in the Western Conference Finals to eliminate the Sharks in four games.

Dallas Stars

Goaltenders signed: Kari Lehtonen, Andrew Raycroft
Lehtonen appears to be the Stars' goaltender of the future, seeing as how the Stars let Turco walk away during the offseason. But Lehtonen is unproven. Should he falter, the Stars would have to turn to Raycroft, who hasn't had much success in the League since winning the Calder Trophy with the Boston Bruins in 2003-04. Would the Stars be better off with a Finnish goaltending duo comprised of Lehtonen and Niemi? A virtual swap of Turco and Niemi isn't out of the question.
Atlanta Thrashers

Goaltenders signed: Chris Mason, Ondrej Pavelec
It may not make sense when you consider the ink is still drying on Mason's two-year contract he signed in July and Pavelec is locked up for the next two seasons. But clearly Thrashers GM Rick Dudley is a big fan of Blackhawks castaways. This summer, the Thrashers have signed or traded for Ben Eager, Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien and Brent Sopel, all members of Chicago's Cup-winning team. Perhaps associate coach John Torchetti, an assistant with the Blackhawks from 2007-10, might offer a glowing recommendation of Niemi. If Dudley really likes Niemi, he has the money to spend and could always make room for him by swinging a deal.

Montreal Canadiens

Goaltenders signed: Alex Auld
Carey Price is still negotiating his restricted free-agent contract with the team, but he's the guy there after the Canadiens dealt Jaroslav Halak to the St. Louis Blues in June. The 22-year-old Price has yet to show he can handle the No. 1 duties in Montreal, and Auld isn't exactly the safety net that Halak was. But if the Canadiens didn't have faith in Price, would they have traded Halak? The biggest obstacle in Niemi signing in Montreal -- besides the obvious flaws in logic and reason -- is the fact the Canadiens don't have a lot of cap room. This might be the longest of long shots for Niemi's potential destinations.

Philadelphia Flyers

Goaltenders signed: Michael Leighton, Brian Boucher
If you can't beat him, sign him? Goaltending is clearly the Flyers' weak link and adding Niemi would be a huge boost to the team that lost to the Blackhawks in last year's Stanley Cup Final. Unfortunately, the Flyers are right up against the cap and would have to make a salary-dump type move to free up space for Niemi. It's probably not worth it for the Flyers to re-arrange everything when Leighton took them nearly as far as Niemi took the Hawks last season.

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo

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