Chicago Blackhawks

Hawk Talk: From negotiation to arbitration

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Hawk Talk: From negotiation to arbitration

Wednesday, July 28, 2010
3:40 PM

By Chris Boden
CSNChicago.com
It's a painful irony.

The Blackhawks are the most financially successful they've been in years, thanks to the product on the ice and the presentation all around it, yet they might not be able to afford to pay the goalie who helped lead them to their first Stanley Cup in half a century.

We'll have a better idea within a week, if not sooner, who'll be the man in the nets when the Blackhawks open defense. It has nothing to do with not wanting Antti Niemi back. Stan Bowman may even totally agree with what agent Bill Zito thinks his client is worth. And you can't deny an agent or a player for wanting what they feel they deserve, especially after turning to him, relying upon him, and getting those 16 wins in April, May and June.

At 8 a.m., Chicago time, Thursday morning in Toronto, each side will get 90 minutes in front of an arbitrator to state their case for Niemi's salary for the 2010-11 season. Niemi will be present. That's where things are always uncomfortable in any sport, even if a team loves the guy and wants him back - listening to why he should be paid lower than the salary he thinks he's worth, and may, in fact, deserve, based on what other goalies of similar age and skill are being paid. Bowman and Zito seem to be in agreement this is more about the money within the salary cap the Hawks don't have now, as opposed to what Niemi should probably earn.

Each side is already aware of the other's proposals and arguments, both through paperwork filed Tuesday, and simply through the numerous conversations Bowman and Zito have had in recent weeks to get creative in hopes of hammering something out. Unless they discover a solution they hadn't found previously and sign a deal prior to the start of the hearing, they'll walk away around lunchtime and wait. The arbitrator's choice between the two proposals comes within 48 hours, and the Hawks then have another 48 to determine whether to accept the ruling. If not, Niemi becomes an unrestricted free agent. If they accept despite a salary being too high for their liking, they have the right to trade Niemi, or keep him and either seek a trade for him, or trade other players to open the necessary salary cap space.

Everyone's asked over the past several weeks what kinds of numbers are being tossed around. I don't know and can only hazard a guess, which might not be as much brain surgery as most things are for me. What I tell them is, if I'm the Hawks, with the money I have and what I may still have to do with the roster, I'm trying to appeal to Niemi's camp the idea of making three times what he made last season as a rookie, which would put him in the 2.5 million salary range, and build on that in a multi-year deal, keeping the Cap "hit" in mind. I have a feeling they might be able to live with having to pay up to 3 million, but don't believe that number's even in play from either side for the hearing. I also tell them the reason I believe there hasn't been an agreement yet is the bar St. Louis set in their 4-year, 15 million contract with Jaroslav Halak. He was also a rookie, had similar regular season numbers as Niemi, and was as big a reason as any the Canadiens knocked off Washington and Pittsburgh before falling to Philadelphia. That's the neighborhood in which Niemi and Zito are likely shopping. And he didn't win the Cup.

So if it comes to the point where Niemi isn't a Blackhawk, where does he go, either by unrestricted free agency or a trade?

The landscape for most teams at that position is pretty settled by now. Do the Flyers think Niemi's that much better than Michael Leighton, whom they re-signed, but not necessarily as the starter? Especially with all those defensemen they have? Yet they have Cap challenges, too. I don't necessarily believe Columbus (which has a new coach) is ready to pull the plug on their guy who just got a Calder Trophy a year ago, Steve Mason. Edmonton has tons of Cap room, and I'm not sure where Nikolai Khabibulin is in his back surgery rehab now - not to mention the money they gave him a year ago for 18 games' worth. Is Ottawa comfortable enough with Elliott and Leclaire? And finally, one rumor making the rounds is that part of Doug Wilson's strategy in his offer sheet for Niklas Hjalmarsson was not just to find a replacement for Rob Blake (which they still must do), but perhaps make a play for Niemi should he go on the market. Wilson signed Antero Niittymaki for 3 million each of the next two seasons, but would he invest further at that position if believes the goalie who helped knock his Sharks out of the post-season is an upgrade?

Marty Turco and Jose Theodore are still on the market, and their prices obviously haven't been right for those clubs still out there seeking goalie help. They are dominoes that may well fall once Niemi's situation is cleared up. Corey Crawford is in the wings, and could he be ready to at least provide what Niemi did?

Those questions don't need to be answered yet. We'll find out soon whether they'll need to be.

Brandon Saad back in veteran-like form for Blackhawks

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USA TODAY

Brandon Saad back in veteran-like form for Blackhawks

Brandon Saad seems like more of an NHL veteran than he is. From his size to his composed style of play to what he’s already accomplished at this level, Saad gives off that vibe that he’s been around much longer than he actually has. Even his teammates forget that.

“You think he may be 27, 28 years old. He’s only 24 years old. He’s still a young kid,” Patrick Kane said. “Guys like [Ryan] Hartman and [Vinnie] Hinostroza are only 23 so he’s not much older than them, even though he might seem it. He’s got a great future.”

Saad’s future is once again being played out in Chicago and he couldn’t feel better about returning. Back in a familiar city and a familiar spot on the ice – alongside Jonathan Toews – Saad is ready to reignite the top line with Toews and Richard Panik. Outside of some scrimmages the line hasn’t gotten much of a chance to see where things are yet – their first preseason game was against Columbus on Saturday. But Saad said things are coming together.

“It was still [Toews’] first game back and my first time with him but we’re pretty familiar with each other. I don’t think it’ll take long at all,” he said following the team’s first practice at Notre Dame on Sunday. “Any time you come from a five-month summer into the season your timing’s always a little off, and then with a new player going back to a familiar player, I think that’s the biggest thing.”

Toews recognized Saad’s desire to be a big part of this team when the left wing was a rookie. That drive hasn’t diminished.

“His rookie year I kept saying you could see that intangible quality in him, that he wanted to get better every single night,” Toews said. “You see players with raw, physical talent and ability but don’t take it upon themselves to be one of the guys every single night. Saader was showing that right away and you could tell he was just going to get better and better.”

The powerful part of Saad’s game the Blackhawks missed the most was evident in his first preseason contest back with him, against Detroit on Thursday. The Red Wings didn’t have their top squad but Saad was nevertheless dominant, recording a hat trick in which all three goals were within a few feet of the net. The top line has had that element here and there the past two seasons but no doubt felt Saad’s absence.

“He’s a high-end player or potential player that should develop into a regular scorer and who knows what he could do,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “I still think there’s room where maybe he could go to a better level as far as production goes, because he gets so many looks around the net with his quickness and the way he protects the puck and the way he can shoot it.”

Saad reaching another level. Again, you see what he’s done so far and you forget that he’s only 24. He still has a lot of time – and potential – ahead of him.

“He’s stepping in here knowing he’ll be one of those guys heavily keyed upon for us,” Toews said. “And he’s ready for that and excited for it.”

Five Things from Blackhawks-Blue Jackets: Shots and slashes

Five Things from Blackhawks-Blue Jackets: Shots and slashes

It’s preseason: you don’t need a lot of build-up. Let’s just delve right in, shall we?

1. Lots of shots, but…

The same Joonas Korpisalo that the Blackhawks’ youngsters scored five goals against on Tuesday was on top of his game on Saturday. The Blackhawks peppered him with 54 shots but only two got through, and the second was a 6-on-4 power-play goal in the final two minutes.

“I thought we could have gotten a little more traffic in front of him," Nick Schmaltz said. "I thought we were playing along the outside. I mean we had some great looks. He made some big saves. Some nights you get the bounces and some nights you don’t.”

2. Bérubé’s Blackhawks debut.

Jean-François Bérubé had a tough sequence early in the second period, when he gave up two goals in a 28-second span. This was against a Columbus team that didn’t send many of their top players. He also didn’t see a ton of action in this one; the Blue Jackets fired just 21 shots his way.

3. Growing pains.

Alex DeBrincat had his up and down moments on Saturday night. His turnover led to Columbus’ first goal, he took a slashing penalty and he fought the puck quite a bit. You still saw glimpses of that skill, though, especially with his quick release. Hey, he’s a 19-year-old guy getting his first taste of the NHL. Nights like this are going to happen.

“We all make mistakes,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “You gotta be safe in certain areas and you learn from that.”

4. Slash-o-meter.

Four more were called on Saturday night. Don’t be surprised if that number starts dwindling sooner rather than later, though, because the edict has apparently changed already. Sportsnet’s John Shannon reported earlier on Saturday that the league told officials to ease up on slashing and faceoff violations. But we all figure that’s going to happen once the regular season begins anyway, right?

5. Notre Dame bound.

The destination is familiar but the Blackhawks threw it into their second week of camp this season. It’ll be bonding time for the Blackhawks, who will send a smaller group for several practices there this week. Quenneville figures it’ll be a productive time. “We’ll get some bonding in, play golf together, have a nice outing, couple of road games and a nice campus.”