Antti Niemi Files For Arbitration: Possible Issues

How much is Antti Niemi worth?

The deadline for restricted free agents to file for arbitration was over the weekend, and 31 players filed. The biggest name on the list was Blackhawks’ goalie Antti Niemi.

By filing for arbitration, Niemi indicates that he wants an independent third party to rule on his contractual situation with the Blackhawks if the two sides cannot agree to terms by the end of July. There has been a lot of misinformation wandering around the web regarding Niemi, from reports that negotiations are going well to him asking for more than $4M on a long-term deal. Nothing official has been said by Niemi’s camp, but Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman has remained confident that Niemi and the team’s other restricted free agent, Niklas Hjalmarsson, will sign soon.

If Niemi’s deal ends up in the hands of the third party arbitrator, though, it could lead to another sticky situation for the Hawks.

Should negotiations reach the arbitrator, both sides would present their final offers and the third party would weigh a number of factors. Niemi’s career numbers, which features the Stanley Cup win but is still limited, and the current financial market for goalies would weigh heavily in the third party’s decision. That decision would likely be for a one-year contract.

Only deals given to restricted free agents this summer can be used as specific evidence in arbitration, but here are some goalies that have signed this summer that, while not being admissible as evidence, could have moderate influence a third party award for Niemi:

  • Jaroslav Halak* – St. Louis: 4 yrs/$15M ($3.75M cap number) RFA
  • Michael Leighton – Philadelphia: 2 yrs/$3.1M ($1.55M cap)
  • Antero Nittymaki – San Jose: 2 yrs/$4M ($2.0M cap)
  • Dan Ellis – Tampa Bay: 2 yrs/$3M ($1.5M cap)
  • Martin Biron – NY Rangers: 2 yrs/$1.8M ($0.9M cap)
  • Chris Mason – Atlanta: 2 yrs/$3.7M ($1.85M cap)
  • Johan Hedberg – New Jersey: 1 yr/$1.5M

The reality that Niemi could be under a one-year deal for 2010-11 could make this a messy situation for the Hawks, though.

Niemi would be 27 at the end of a one-year contract, which is a magical number in the NHL. After that one-year deal, because of his age, Niemi would be an unrestricted free agent and could potentially leave Chicago for bigger money than the Blackhawks can afford next summer.

The Blackhawks are expected to be without Cristobal Huet next year, with the most likely scenario being Huet heading to Rockford and taking his cap number with him. That would leave the Hawks with either Corey Crawford or Hannu Toivonen as the backup to Niemi between the pipes next year.

Something to consider, however, is that the Blackhawks have the right to reject the arbitrator’s ruling and walk away from negotiations if they don’t like the number that comes back from the third party. If that happens, the Hawks could head into the 2010-11 season with Huet playing in front of Crawford and/or Toivonen… or the two kids… or a potential free agent that would come cheaper than Niemi’s demands or the arbitrator’s ruling.

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