Niemi saga to come to head this week

It's not just a matter of how much Antti Niemi deserves; it's also a matter of how much the Blackhawks can afford. Rob Grabowski/US Presswire

CHICAGO -- The homework is done. Now it's up to the teacher, or in this case, arbitrator, to decide the outcome.

Antti Niemi's arbitration technically got underway on Tuesday when both sides exchanged written briefs in advance of their hearing on Thursday. All signs point to the Hawks going to arbitration for just the second time with a player (Kyle Calder in 2006) since the current CBA was signed.

As Niemi's agent, Bill Zito, put it to me on Tuesday, this is an atypical arbitration.

"Most arbitrations are a disagreement in a player's worth," he said. "In this case, it's about managing the [salary] cap."

Sounds like the Hawks want to pay him, they just can't. But is that entirely true?

First off, Niemi could accept less. Of course, that brings up the question, less than what? It's simply more about accepting what the Hawks can afford. And therein lies the rub.

The Hawks can afford more if they continue to maneuver as they did last week in trading Marty Reasoner to the Florida Panthers. In lieu of trading one more major name -- which seems unlikely at this point -- the Hawks could save some money by employing as many minimum salaried players as it takes. For example, if they bury Corey Crawford in the minors that saves them potentially $300,000. If newly acquired Viktor Stalberg doesnt make the team that's another $350,000. There are other potential small savings like those which could help keep Niemi in town either before or after the arbitrator's decision.

The trade of Reasoner put the Hawks in a position to keep Niemi if they win in arbitration. The Hawks could employ a 21-man roster if that 21st man can play forward or defense. John Scott could be that guy. With 21 on the roster and Stalberg in the minors, plus $1 million cushion for injuries, the Hawks can afford about $2.5 million for Niemi. If an arbitrator puts the figure between $2 million and $2.5 million, that's a win for the Hawks. If the number is between $2.5 million and $3 million, then the Hawks will have to make that extra move.

If the figure is $3 million or more, then there is little chance Niemi is the starting goaltender come October. The Hawks might accept the award and then trade Niemi (or someone else) before the season begins.

A back-up plan might already be in place, making a trade of Niemi between now and even Thursday a possibility. I asked the agent for Dallas Stars free-agent goalie Marty Turco if he has talked to the Hawks, and he would neither confirm nor deny a conversation has taken place.

"We're still talking to some big-time contenders," Kurt Overhardt said. "I wouldn't limit it to one team. He wants to play for a big-time contender in a great hockey city."

Overhardt made a point of saying that last line, "big-time contender in a great hockey city." Turco already turned down the Flyers for $2 million a year. Philadelphia qualifies as a contender in a good hockey city so maybe he needs a few more dollars or maybe now that it's getting later in the summer, Turco is lowering his demands.

Bottom line: Niemi might deserve or get between $2.5 million and $3 million minimum, while Turco might settle for between $2 million and $2.5 million. That difference could be the reason the Hawks move on Turco and say goodbye to Niemi.

Keeping a Stanley Cup winning goaltender who is 27 (Aug. 29) years old compared to an underachiever at 35 (Aug. 13) seems like a no-brainer. Especially when only hundreds of thousands of dollars are the difference.

If I had a nickel every time someone said, "but Niemi has only played half a season," I'd be a rich man. It's a completely backward statement. How many times have we heard about a player, "Yeah, but what has he done in the postseason?"

That seems like a more legitimate question considering that's where the pressure and grueling nature of the sport comes out. In fact, it's the question people should be asking of Turco. He and the Stars flamed out several times in the postseason with very good teams.

Who cares how long Niemi has played? The four rounds in the playoffs including an incredible series against San Jose should be enough to convince anyone that he deserves the benefit of the doubt.

How many half seasons has Roberto Luongo played? Plenty. Who would you rather have, right now, moving forward? If the answer is Niemi, then at the very least the Hawks should find close to $3 million for him. Hey, at least they don't have to find what Vancouver is paying Luongo. That's only $10 million.

Case closed.