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.

TSN coaches poll: Wild favored to win West over Blackhawks

TSN coaches poll: Wild favored to win West over Blackhawks

The Blackhawks have won three Stanley Cups since 2010, and have eliminated the Minnesota Wild from the playoffs three times from 2013-15.

But it's the Wild that NHL coaches believe will win the Western Conference this season as we approach the trade deadline.

In his annual midseason poll, TSN's Bob McKenzie surveyed 25 of 30 coaches to vote on multiple categories, such as the league's best player and the team most likely to win it all.

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According to the survey, 11 coaches predicted the Wild will win the West while the Blackhawks and Sharks tied for second with four votes.

As for winning the Stanley Cup, the Washington Capitals are the favorite, earning 10 votes, followed closely by the reigning champion Pittsburgh Penguins with eight. The Wild and Blackhawks rounded out the poll with three and two votes, respectively.

Joel Quenneville earned one vote as the NHL's best coach, which is three fewer votes than he had last year, despite this year being arguably his most challenging — and best — coaching job since arriving in Chicago, given the youth on the roster.

Extra incentive fuels Tanner Kero in second stint with Blackhawks

Extra incentive fuels Tanner Kero in second stint with Blackhawks

Incentive. For many young prospects trying to latch onto an NHL roster, there's already plenty of it there. It's a chance at playing on a bigger stage, a bigger opportunity for a career and, if you're on a two-way contract, a bigger paycheck.

Tanner Kero already had that incentive but in November, received an even more special one: he and his wife welcomed their first child, a boy. Now when Kero plays, it's not just what it means for him. It's what it means for his family.

"It's been a fun experience. It's something a little extra special that you play for," Kero said. "You get your mind away from the game when you go home. You just relax and enjoy that part of life. It's just something extra to play for and it's been special."

Kero has been making the most of his second shot with the Blackhawks, recording two goals and two assists on the Blackhawks' dads trip. That included a three-point night against the Colorado Avalanche and a building chemistry with line mates Vinnie Hinostroza and Marian Hossa. 

Coach Joel Quenneville likes what he's seen thus far.

"He did a great job for us," Quenneville said. "Defensively, we like his availability in his own end. We like his positioning offensively. He had a nice couple of games to finish the dads trip but he's been good for us. I like the consistency."

Rockford coach Ted Dent said Kero started playing better in November, not long after Kero became a dad. Whether or not that had anything to do with it Dent didn't know, but the results were there nonetheless.

"I think he'd be the first to say his season started off slow with us and he finally caught his stride, maybe 15-20 games into our season," Dent said. "He was skating better, skating stronger, he had more confidence with the puck and things just came together."

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Kero's line is a good blend of familiarity, defense and skill. Kero and Hinostroza are good friends who played together plenty in Rockford. Hossa is... well, Hossa, and pretty much benefits any line mate.

"It's been good," Kero said. "We've been trying to continue, get some secondary scoring. But we also want to be relied on defensively, be counted on to play in big situations, a defensive draw, at the end of a period or end of a game. We're trying to focus on being good defensively, being simple and hard to play against. We're getting fortunate enough to contribute offensively as well."

Hossa, whose game-winning goal in Boston came off a Kero feed, said the 24-year-old is adapting well.

"Since they called him up he took it to his advantage. Right now he's playing the 200-foot game, [he's] real smart in our zone, doesn't panic, makes the right play at the right time, and he's showing more offensive abilities," Hossa said. "It seems like things are going well for him and we're glad we can help as a third line right now in scoring some important goals. With young players, that's definitely big."

Kero's made an impact and an impression with the Blackhawks. Quenneville said on Sunday that, even when Marcus Kruger returns from his injury, Kero will likely remain where he is – "I don't see too many things that would change his positioning because he really helped himself," Quenneville said.

"That comment tells you the trust level he's gained in Kero," Dent said. "I knew over time that Kero was a player that Q was going to love. I've gotten to know Q over the years and in talking to him I know what he likes in players and it was just a matter of time because Kero's a responsible two-way player. He doesn't cheat the game and he's very aware of his defensive responsibilities and that's what Q loves, first and foremost. A lot of us coaches love that."

Kero is making strides in his second stint with the Blackhawks. He already had plenty of incentive to make an impact on this roster. Now a new father, he has that much more of one.