Thanks to a flurry of fantastic, under-the-radar moves over the past couple weeks, the Blackhawks might now be able to afford having Antti Niemi back on their roster for the 2010-11 season.
Because of a handful of two-way contracts added by GM Stan Bowman, it is now possible that the Blackhawks could begin the season with a 20-man roster and offer Niemi roughly $3.5M, which is closer to the range Niemi and his agent are likely looking at for at least a one-year deal to keep the Stanley Cup winning netminder in the Indianhead sweater.
Is a 20-man roster a good idea? Not always. Is it possible? Absolutely. And because of these contracts with limited exposure, the Hawks could realistically bring the minimum number of players north and make it work.
With just two days left until Niemi's arbitration hearing, here's how the Hawks keep Niemi in net.
First off, there will be casualties. The biggest name to be left in Rockford would be Corey Crawford, the one-time top prospect who would be this year's salary cap caused demotion. Because his cap number is $250k more than Hannu Toivonen, Crawford might have to take another year with the IceHogs because of his salary.
The other big casualty would be the 21st man on the roster. But, again, it's possible for the Hawks to keep only 20 on the roster because of the salaries Bowman has handed out in the last month.
If a player on the third or fourth line wasn't getting it done, the Hawks would only be able to replace that player with comparable salary if they opted to demote said struggling forward. For example, if Jake Dowell has a terrible October and the Hawks decided to go in a different direction, the most they could add as a replacement cap number would be equal to Dowell's $525k figure.
Which is what makes all of these minimal contracts to important.
In the last few weeks, the Hawks have signed Hugh Jessiman, Jack Skille, Evan Brophey, Nathan Davis, Igor Makarov, and John Scott and added Jeff Taffe via trade. What's important about all of these deals is that they all have similar cap numbers, with the highest of the group being Skille's $600k.
Now consider this group of players.
Jessiman was the 12th overall pick in 2003. Skille was the seventh overall pick in 2005. Makarov was the 33rd overall pick in 2006. Taffe was a first round pick in 2000. Brophey was a third round pick and Davis was a fourth round selection in 2005.
All of these players, at some point in their lives, was considered a top talent.
In the case of Makarov, there were questions about his willingness to play in North America. In the case of Skille, his cap number kept him in Rockford. Jessiman and Taffe haven't performed to a level worthy of their draft slot, and Brophey and Davis have never seen the NHL.
We have established that there is talent, and a similar cap number. The other key to these players is the length of their deals; all of them except Scott has a one-year deal. So if Skille doesn't make the team, the Hawks can put him through waivers and send him to Rockford with minimal exposure long-term (like they undoubtedly will with Cristobal Huet). For the others, they can float back and forth from Rockford to Chicago on a regular basis and, because of their salaries, can replace each other regularly without a substantial impact on the Hawks' cap situation.
What is also important to remember is that the 2009-10 Stanley Cup Champion Blackhawks had a group of unknowns on their roster as well. Last year at the end of July, Troy Brouwer was a 24-year-old forward with 27 career points in the NHL. Tomas Kopecky was a 27-year-old forward with 32 career points in the NHL. In fact, Dustin Byfuglien was a 24-year-old forward with only 75 career points. Those three players, who had 134 career points entering last season, combined to score 95 last season.
To think these players, along with Dowell, Bryan Bickell and Viktor Stalberg can fill out the third and fourth lines for the Hawks is certainly a gamble, but the Blackhawks and coach Joel Quenneville now have a resume that includes winning a championship with an underwhelming group of players.
Which brings us back to keeping Niemi.
If the Blackhawks are comfortable with the potential of being limited in any way on their bench (though they were able to handle the same issue by moving players like Dowell and Bickell back and forth from Rockford within hours of a game), they could possibly offer Niemi $3.5M for next season. Here would be your potential Blackhawks roster for Opening Night:
- Patrick Kane - Jonathan Toews - Troy Brouwer
- Marian Hossa - Patrick Sharp - Viktor Stalberg
- Bryan Bickell - Dave Bolland - Tomas Kopecky
- Jack Skille - Jake Dowell - Hugh Jessiman
- Duncan Keith - Brent Seabrook
- Brian Campbell - Niklas Hjalmarsson
- Shawn Lalonde - Jordan Hendry
- Goalies: Antti Niemi - Hannu Toivonen
The assumptions on this roster are that Hendry returns for the same cap number last year ($625k) and that Niemi would receive an even $3.5M for next year. This roster would be very tight financially, with under $10,000 in cap flexibility for the season. However, it fits under the cap and 14 of the 20 players would have played for the Blackhawks in the postseason last year.
If Makarov, who has a one-way contract, makes the team on the fourth line over Jessiman or another player with a $500k cap number, the difference would be $52,500 on Niemi's salary.
Also, if the assumption is that Scott, who signed a two-year deal, is both the 13th forward and seventh defenseman, is there going to be a significant loss by sending him to Rockford and saving the cap space? Scott has three points in 71 career games.
Questions will undoubtedly come from the youngsters replacing familiar faces for the Hawks in key situations. However, here are some considerations that must be made looking forward for Hawks fans:
Seven of the top 10 penalty killers (based on avg. ice time short-handed per game) will be back next year. Brent Sopel, John Madden and Colin Fraser are the three that will be gone, but that's also with Bolland playing fewer minutes because of his back injury earlier in the season. There will be players expected to play a more significant role this season, including Hjalmarsson.
Similarly, of the 12 primary power play skaters from the playoffs this spring, only two - Dustin Byfuglien and Kris Versteeg - will be gone next year.
It doesn't matter if the Hawks bring Niemi back for $1M or $3.5M next year, or if there are 20 or 21 on the roster, there will be supporting players that will be asked to step up to replace key departures like Byfuglien, Versteeg, Madden and Andrew Ladd on the forward lines and Sopel on the blue line. What is important is that Bowman has successfully added big bodies with a lot of talent for bargain-basement prices through free agency in July that give the organization options.
And it is those options that must be available for this team to be able to keep Niemi next year.