07/29/2010 7:24 PM - From chicagoblackhawks.com: (link)
Antti Niemi's future in Chicago remains in question as his arbitration hearing has already played out Thursday morning in Toronto, according to NHLPA spokesman Jonathan Weatherdon.
The arbitrator that heard evidence from both sides now has 48 hours to render a decision on what Niemi's next contract should be and then the Blackhawks will have 48 hours to determine if they want to accept the terms or let Niemi walk into unrestricted free agency.
It all boils down to the $59.4 million salary cap for the 2010-11 season -- a number that has led the Blackhawks to strip away several players from their Cup-winning roster.
"Most arbitrations are a disagreement in a player's worth," Niemi's agent, Bill Zito, told ESPNChicago.com. "In this case, it's about managing the cap."
If the Hawks accept the terms of the arbitrator's decision and sign Niemi, they will need to go searching for more salary cap relief. Niemi's reward will likely exceed the $800,000 he reportedly made last season and the Blackhawks are already $403,256 over the salary cap, according to capgeek.com.
Should the Hawks reject the arbitrator's decision and opt not to sign Niemi, the 26-year-old Finnish goalie would join a list of UFA goalies that already includes veterans Marty Turco and Jose Theodore. It's possible that those two have been in a holding pattern as NHL general managers looking for goalie help wait to find out if Niemi will become available.
Another option for the Blackhawks is to sign Niemi under the arbitrator's terms and then look to trade him. That would give them the choice of signing a goalie such as Turco or Theodore for less money than Niemi was awarded, or perhaps going with a tandem of Cristobal Huet and Corey Crawford, a prospect who has played four AHL seasons and a handful of NHL games.
The arbitrator is one of eight members of the National Academy of Arbitrators that was jointly appointed by the NHL and the NHLPA.
Niemi helped the Hawks win their first Cup since 1961 by going 16-6 with a .910 save percentage, 2.63 goals-against average and two shutouts during the 2010 playoffs. He went 26-7-4 with a .912 save percentage, 2.25 GAA and seven shutouts in 39 regular-season appearances.
Prior to the 2009-10 season, Niemi had played in only three NHL games. He was signed by the Blackhawks as an unrestricted free agent on May 5, 2008, after playing three professional seasons in Finland. Niemi went 18-14-3 for Rockford of the American Hockey League in 2008-09.