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Niemi becomes Chicago's latest cap casualty

By Dan Di Sciullo
NHL Editor


Dan Di Sciullo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - We already knew Stan Bowman was serious about fixing the Blackhawks' salary cap situation, but that still wasn't enough to prepare us for the recent decisions made by Chicago's general manager.

On Sunday, an arbitrator awarded Antti Niemi, the goaltender who just several weeks ago helped the Blackhawks win their first Stanley Cup championship in 49 years, $2.75 million for the 2010-11 season.

The arbitrator's ruling led to the surprising announcement on Monday that the Blackhawks were walking away from Niemi and his $2.75 million price tag, and signing veteran Marty Turco to a one-year deal worth a reported $1.3 million. Just like that, Niemi became an unrestricted free agent and Turco became the presumptive favorite to start in net for Chicago next season.

So, for the difference of $1.45 million, the Blackhawks lost a Stanley Cup- winning goaltender who, at 26 years of age, is presumably about to enter his prime. Turco, on the other hand, has a losing record over his playoff career and is about to celebrate his 35th birthday in the coming weeks. The fact that Chicago couldn't find a way to keep Niemi for $1.5 million more a year really illustrates how tight the cap situation is in the Windy City.

Blackhawks fans will always remember Antti Niemi for his role in helping end a lengthy Cup drought.
Of course, the rather large contract of a third goaltender, Cristobal Huet, is among the financial issues that have made Bowman's summer of salary dumping a necessity. Huet was signed by Chicago's previous GM, Dale Tallon, to an enormous four-year, $22.4 million contract in July of 2008. To say that Huet hasn't earned that money would be a comical understatement.

Huet famously lost his starting job to first-year NHLer Niemi during last season, and Monday's signing of Turco reveals that the Hawks still don't have much faith in Huet regaining his No. 1 status. Regardless of how many starts Huet gets this year, he still carries a damaging cap hit of about $5.6 million for each of the next two seasons.

But it wasn't just Tallon's signing of Huet that made it essential for Bowman to play the fiscal voice of reason this summer. Tallon had simply allocated too much money to too many players and Bowman responded this offseason by getting rid of guys like Dustin Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg, Andrew Ladd, Adam Burish and others.

Nobody wants to see a championship team get dismantled as quickly as the 2009-10 Blackhawks have been stripped to pieces, but Bowman is taking on a noble crusade in doing so. Chicago's GM is sacrificing depth in order to keep together his franchise's nucleus.

Because of Bowman's maneuvering, the Blackhawks will be able to keep key pieces like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith, and Patrick Sharp. However, head coach Joel Quenneville will have the difficult task of winning with a top-heavy lineup that will surely be filled out by inexpensive, journeymen-type players. My guess is the Blackhawks will still make the playoffs and challenge for a division title, but it could be hard to repeat as Cup winners when so much of the team's depth is now elsewhere.

But, Monday's news doesn't just show us how dire Chicago's salary cap issues are. It also reveals how much Turco wants to play for the Blackhawks. Sure, Turco seems to be nearing the end of his career and is coming off a couple of down seasons in Dallas, but it's hard to believe he couldn't have earned more than $1.3 million to play somewhere other than Chicago.

Under different circumstances the Blackhawks would've loved to hold onto Niemi and see if he had another Stanley Cup or two in his future, but the club is erring on the side of caution. In order to save a little bit of money under the cap, the team is essentially betting that Niemi is not the long-term answer in net, and that they could be just as good with an aging veteran like Turco between the pipes.

Now, of course, Niemi is a hot commodity on the open market and will likely land with a contender if the right team can find the cap space to sign the Finnish netminder.

As for Blackhawks fans, they will always remember Niemi for his role in helping end a lengthy Cup drought, and will likely keep a close eye on the rest of the youngster's career. Bowman and the Hawks front office will be watching Niemi as well, but they'll be hoping the goaltender doesn't become the franchise goaltender that got away.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Dan Di Sciullo at ddisciullo@sportsnetwork.com.

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Dan Di Sciullo

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