Arbitrating a Scenario: Chicago Blackhawks, Antti Niemi at a Crossroads

Kyle WahlgrenCorrespondent IJuly 21, 2010

PHILADELPHIA - JUNE 04:  Antti Niemi #31 of the Chicago Blackhawks looks on in Game Four of the 2010 NHL Stanley Cup Final against the Philadelphia Flyers at Wachovia Center on June 4, 2010 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Not too long ago it was 2006, and the Carolina Hurricanes had just defeated the Edmonton Oilers in the Stanley Cup Finals.

Winning goaltender and Conn Smythe winner?

That would be Cam Ward.

Throughout the 2005-06 season, the Hurricanes stomped through their schedule en route to compiling 112 points.  Shattering team records in wins (52) and points (112), they were led by coach Peter Laviolette.

Over the course of the season Ward played back-up goaltender to Martin Gerber, who started in 60 of the 82 games played.

Following the first two games of the opening series in the 2006 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Carolina had quickly found themselves in an 0-2 hole against Montreal

What was Laviolette's answer?

Pulling his seasoned goaltender for the unproven rookie, Ward.

Ward had accumulated 28 appearances during the regular season, establishing a 3.68 goals-against average and a .886 save percentage.

The move could have been mere luck, but in turn it may have been the biggest decision of Laviolette's career as a head coach.

Ward would not only lead his team to a Stanley Cup Championship over the Oilers, but was also awarded the Conn Smythe award for his performance.

He would become the first rookie goaltender to win the Stanley Cup since Patrick Roy in 1986.

Not only that, but he also became the first rookie goaltender to win the Conn Smythe since Ron Hextall in 1987.

So what is this leading to?

Ward didn't receive an extension until the following season, in which he suffered multiple injuries. 

As a result, he signed a three-year, $8 million dollar contract.  This would eventually turn into a six-year, $37.5 million dollar contract, which was signed on September 30, 2009. 

While Antti Niemi and his agent, Bill Zito, continue contract negotiations, it is difficult to not mention Ward's history with Carolina.

Niemi and Ward both won the Stanley Cup in the rookie seasons, while neither of them started a majority of their team's games. 

Yes, Ward was injured at parts in the following season leading up to the contract extension in 2007, he still won the Conn Smythe the previous season.

For this reason, the Carolina Hurricanes tiered Ward's contract.  He would earn $2 million the first season, $2.5 million the second, and $3.5 million this last season. 

This should show a clear contrast towards what the figures being discussed with Niemi.

If someone would suggest Niemi should make $2 million, the organization would be ecstatic.  Unfortunately, Zito has displayed discontent with any thing lower than $3 million. 

As Tab Bamford, fellow Bleacher Report writer, pointed to in his recent article as well, Zito has suggested to the Hawks that they need a trade to create room for Niemi.

He said in a recent interview, "Is the team really going to walk away from a 27-year-old goalie that won the Stanley Cup? You're crazy; you'll make a trade first."

Hardly a statement that can be made by any agent seeking less than a $3 million dollar contract.

For comparison, here are both goalies' break down:

Cam Ward231584722.14.920
Antti Niemi221665822.63.910


In comparison, you can see for yourself that the statistics do lightly tilt in one direction. 

Many can argue for offensive production that each netminder faced, but let the truth be known that Ward did win the Conn Smythe, an award that preceded a three-year contract extension that would result in $3.5 million in the final season. 

As perceived by many to be a prove-your-success contract, Ward took that as a stepping stone and developed himself as the backbone of the franchise.

Over those seasons he started in 184 games and led the Hurricanes to another playoff berth in 2008-09.

This in turn, led to Ward being awarded a six-year, $37.5 million dollar contract last September.

Age-wise, Niemi is a bit older, but the fact of overlooking experience could prove to be an achilles' heel for whomever signs Niemi to a bloated contract.

Undeniably, does an arbitrator need to take into account past players in the same circumstance when making a ruling?  Definitely.

Will Zito pay attention to the contracts constructed recently to lighten the stress on the Hawks salary cap woes?  No.

He has made it clear that, if his client is to stay in Chicago, the franchise should be looking to make space.

For a goalie only having limited experience, this seems to be a bit pompous and perhaps a little arrogant.

Should Zito find some reality in his expectation, it would be to look towards helping out a team which has built an organization around success.

Moving an adored piece of a successful equation out of its surroundings is definitely a risky choice.

The Hawks, regardless of who is in net, will be successful next season Mr. Zito.

Blackhawks fans would like Niemi to remain a Hawk, the organization would love for him to remain a part of the team, and Niemi seems committed to donning the red sweater.


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