In the wake of the news of an arbitrator awarding $2.75M to Antti Niemi on Saturday morning, the choices for the Blackhawks are starting to come into view.
The Blackhawks could accept the ruling. By doing that, the Hawks would move forward with somewhere between $175-250k in cap space without another move coming; this route would likely mean the end of Tomas Kopecky’s days in Chicago. With just a one-year deal, the Hawks would also be back in this position next summer, looking for a starting goalie without the protection of restricted free agency.
The Blackhawks could reject the ruling. If this becomes a reality, Niemi becomes an unrestricted free agent in a marketplace not looking for starting goalies in the neighborhood of $2.75-3.0M per season. Niemi would have limited options, and could even stand to lose money on the open market.
The Blackhawks could trade Niemi. This is where things could get messy…
Now that the ruling is official, the Blackhawks have 48 hours to make their decision. They do have the ability to trade the rights to Niemi at some point within that window, and could also accept the ruling and then trade Niemi. We’ve already discussed the lack of an available home for Niemi, but there are two potential landing places for him if the Hawks were indeed looking to make a trade.
The first home would be the Edmonton Oilers, who are looking at a potential absense from former Hawks goalie Nikolai Khabibulin because of a DUI in Arizona. The problem with Edmonton, unfortunately, is the question of return value in a trade. The Hawks would be moving the starting goalie off the Stanley Cup Champion team for either a couple prospects or draft picks; there isn’t a veteran player on the awful Oilers roster that would make sense to bring back in a deal.
Which brings us to option two: the Washington Capitals. With the top scoring offense in the league, the Caps allowed a lot of shots on net last year. With Jose Theodore moving on, it appears the Caps have handed the reigns to 22-year-old Russian netminder Semyon Varlamov. However, they have enough cap space and a veteran team that would be focused on winning now, and with the young goalie in the final year of his contract, Varlamov might be an ideal trade target for the Blackhawks.
Could a Niemi-for-Varlamov deal make sense?
Varlamov has a cap number of $800k for next year, and would be a restricted free agent next summer. While he doesn’t have the experience of Niemi, it is possible for the Hawks to add a veteran backup (read Marty Turco) to split time with Varlamov and pay less for both goalies than Niemi’s $2.75M cap number.
And if Varlamov is as good as many scouts and coaches have said he can be, locking him up could be an ideal situation for the Blackhawks.
In his young career, Varlamov is 19-4-7 in 32 games (28 starts) with a .911 save percentage and a 2.52 goals against average. He also played in six of the Caps playoffs games last year (starting five), going 3-3 with a .908 save percentage and a 2.41 goals against average in the Caps loss to the Montreal Canadiens.
Varlamov is five years younger than Niemi, and posted similar numbers to the Hawks netminder this spring; Niemi won more games (obviously), but his .910 save percentage and 2.61 goals against average are consistent with the Caps young goalie.
This move would give the Hawks a younger player between the pipes with perhaps a bigger upside long-term, and also save the team money moving forward.