Antti Niemi ready to face former team
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Former Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Antti Niemi, who helped end a 49-year Stanley Cup drought in Chicago, says he has no regrets about how he left for the San Jose Sharks this past offseason.
Niemi will face his former team for the first time on Wednesday as the Sharks host the Hawks. It will be the teams' first meeting since Niemi and the Hawks swept the Sharks in the Western Conference finals last season.
"Of course it would be awesome to beat them," Niemi told ESPNChicago.com Monday afternoon. "But looking at my stats, 2 wins, 4 losses, it really doesn't matter too much who I beat."
As a restricted free agent this past offseason, Niemi and Chicago could not come to an agreement. When a salary arbitrator ruled he should be awarded $2.7 million for one year, the Hawks, seriously hampered by salary-cap constraints, walked away from the decision, making Niemi an unrestricted free agent. The Blackhawks also dealt several other key players from last season for cap reasons.
Niemi heard and read the talk that he was being greedy in the process. He says that couldn't be further from the truth.
"At that time, we didn't want [the arbitration decision] to get too high, because of the salary cap situation," Niemi said. "We were pretty happy with that number, but I was wondering, 'Is it too much?'"
The Hawks felt so, electing to let Niemi go for nothing.
At the time, there was some question as to whether he made a mistake in turning down a multiyear offer. He insists, as does his agent Bill Zito, that a multiyear offer never materialized. In fact, according to Niemi, not much did happen in the way of negotiations.
"We hadn't talked to the Hawks much even before [Niklas] Hjalmarsson got his offer [from San Jose]," he said. "Or much after that."
When the Hawks matched an offer sheet given to Hjalmarsson by the Sharks, it essentially sealed Niemi's fate. The Hawks admitted there was no money left for a substantial raise for Niemi, who made $827,000 the year he won the Cup.
As it turns out, that was OK with Niemi. He says he realized in the process -- for example, the Hawks paying Hjalmarsson over him -- he wasn't a priority, and so when his camp figured out what the arbitrator's decision meant, he wasn't devastated.
"Then when I thought that I wasn't a priority, I thought better to move on anyway," Niemi said.
Niemi was in Finland during the free-agency process, but he constantly was kept informed of things by his agents, who have an office in that country.
Niemi wasn't happy reading that some people felt he was not properly informed.
"And that's funny also," Niemi said. "Someone was saying or writing that 'Niemi didn't understand what was going on.' And that's funny because we had these conference calls with my agent. And we'd talk in English and then in Finnish so I knew what was going on the whole time. It was unbelievable reading that."
Niemi has struggled (2-4-1, 3.91 GAA) in his first six weeks with the Sharks, but he feels his game is coming around. He's happy he ended up where he did.
"I had some options," Niemi said about becoming a free agent. "I didn't think about the city at all. More like the team and what's going on there."
Niemi was replaced in Chicago by Marty Turco, who signed a one-year, $1.3 million deal. Turco also has struggled at times, going 8-6 with a 2.83 GAA for the Hawks, who are in fourth place in the Central Division.
Jesse Rogers covers the Blackhawks for ESPNChicago.com.