Commentary

Exhausted Hawks let Antti Niemi go

Salary cap makes goalie latest, and hopefully last, victim from Stanley Cup champs

Updated: August 30, 2010, 1:22 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

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CHICAGO -- As public speakers go, Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman is a man of few words.

When dealing with the media, Bowman rarely lets an unintended word slip out, and he's a far cry from the garrulous old-school general managers. Speaking for the umpteenth time this summer about losing another mainstay of the Stanley Cup champions, Bowman used a curious word a couple of times: exhausted.

It's a good one to describe the Summer of Stan, in which the numbers-conscious scion of hockey royalty has had to juggle figures in his head to keep this star-laden team under the good graces of the National Hockey League's harder-than-Chris-Pronger's-heart salary cap.

"The salary cap has been talked about too much the past month, but that's the system we're under," Bowman said.

He's exhausted. We're exhausted. Heck, even Patrick Kane is probably exhausted. The season can't start soon enough to wash away another bad summer.

Monday marked the perceived end to the roster bloodletting, as goaltender Antti Niemi was released and made an unrestricted free agent after an arbitrator ruled that the 26-year-old should earn $2.75 million this season. That's too rich for the capped-out Hawks, who tried to get their fast-charging goaltender under contract. Bowman intimated the team had tried to work out a trade, but nothing materialized, and the two wound up in an amicable, if not unfortunate, divorce.

[+] EnlargeAntti Niemi
Bruce Bennett/Getty ImagesThe Blackhawks decided to part ways with goalie Antti Niemi on Monday, but his last game with the team will always be memorable.

"We've exhausted all options," Bowman said. "We made several contract offers, including a multiyear offer, but it never worked out, so we're going in a different direction."

That direction is Marty Turco, a three-time All-Star who is 35 and willing to sign a one-year deal to play for the defending champions. He will save the Blackhawks more than $1 million, no small sum in this sport.

Turco spoke via conference call from a golf vacation in Scotland. It obviously wasn't hard to convince him to break up the revelry for a work call. His defense in Dallas was suspect, and despite his relatively advanced age, he should easily fit in behind Chicago's top-notch defensemen. Chicago's biggest loss in this deal is continuity and the chance to see what Niemi could do after one year and one championship.

"It's a dream come true to play for an Original Six franchise," said Turco, who had been eyeing the Hawks as a destination going into his free-agency year. "It's an amazing day for my family and me to become a Blackhawk."

Bowman said this parting didn't come as a surprise. What kind of GM would he be if he were blindsided by contract negotiations? One reason he's in charge is that he came up through the organization as a numbers guy. He'll never be able to spot talent and mentor young players like his predecessor, Dale Tallon, and he can't be expected to see five steps ahead like his father, Scotty.

"I don't think you can be surprised negotiating; it's part of the job," he said. "We had ideas on how to make the contract work, and they had ideas on what they were looking for. It's part of sports; it's part of negotiating."

So far, we're not quite clear on what the Hawks offered Niemi, who quickly became a Chicago legend after starting the season behind Cristobal Huet. Niemi was the Hawks' Bobby Jenks, only more important. He got so good, he was priced out of the picture.

While Bowman made it seem like he offered every kind of deal to the goaltender and Niemi said, "No thanks," his agent said otherwise.

"We discussed some numbers but did not really get off them in so far as structuring a specific multiyear offer," Bill Zito told ESPNChicago.com's Jesse Rogers. "It was more of a general conversation surrounding limitations placed on [Bowman] by the cap. But there is no drama there; what could we do? We always knew this would be a risk, and any time you file for arbitration, in this climate, we knew this could be a possibility -- so we live with our decisions."

I guess the path to this situation is moot now. Niemi is gone. He'll sign a multiyear deal somewhere else in the coming days or weeks, and that's where we'll see whether he continues to evolve as a goaltender or becomes a one-year wonder, a guy in the right place at the right time behind the wrong goaltender.

Niemi, who quickly morphed from question to hero during the course of the unforgettable playoff run, now joins Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, Kris Versteeg, Adam Burish, Brent Sopel and Ben Eager, among others, as ex-Blackhawks, players who won't get to experience the home opener and deal with the motivating but crushing expectations placed before them this season.

"I've referenced this in the past; the players not with us, we'll always be champions together," Bowman said. "We'll always walk together as Stanley Cup champions."

"Always" of course really means "never again." The 2010 champions will be crystallized in our heads as the guys who lived up to their lofty expectations, both internally and externally. Unlike the 2005 world champion White Sox, the Blackhawks were among the favorites coming into the season, and they carried that bull's-eye all season. Now those players don't have to deal with the reality of this upcoming season. In a perfect world, they could all come back, but change is necessary for every team, salary cap or not.

Niemi and Byfuglien and Versteeg & Co. will always be champions last season, but last season is last season. Coaches never like the idea of "defending a championship," and this is no different.

Despite the insistence of the organization that the core of the team is in place, the Hawks' brain trust should let this team stand on its own.

Boxers defend titles; a hockey team like this is simply fighting for another one.

The Blackhawks' recent fan convention was a nice, cuddly reminder of the season that just ended. When the team gets its rings and the Stanley Cup banner is raised, that will close the book on the magical Cup season.

It's sad, but necessary, and Niemi's departure befits that idea.

When asked whether he had talked to Niemi, Bowman said they spoke at the arbitration hearing. Oh, to be a fly on the wall for that chat. It's like Howard Stern meets Charles Barkley, except the complete opposite.

"We had a nice conversation," Bowman said. "I mentioned that we'll always have the Stanley Cup together. And he smiled and said, 'Yeah, it was a great season.' They can't take that away from us."

No, they can't. And if they try, the Blackhawks would like to remind you that DVDs of the 2010 season are on sale now.

DVDs and YouTube are the only places you're going to find Niemi in a Blackhawks jersey anymore. But at least he'll always be there and the Blackhawks will always be champions in that one moment.

The future is truly now for the Blackhawks.

Jon Greenberg is an ESPNChicago.com columnist.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.