Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Blackhawk Down

It should be one of the biggest stories of the offseason. The Chicago Blackhawks hoisted the Stanley Cup trophy for the first time in 49 years. Mere months later, they severed ties with their man between the pipes.

So why doesn't the sports world care???

Because of Brett Favre. Son of a bitch.

How often have we seen the Stanley Cup champions let their netminder go before the next season starts? We haven't, at least not in recent memory. The Antti Niemi story is fascinating. And it's the perfect prelude to a plethora of potential paycheck problems. Alliteration aside, this is kind of a big deal.

SALARY CAP 101 - In the 2010-2011 NHL season, the salary cap is set at $59.4 million. Hockey operates under a "hard cap," meaning there are very few exceptions that would allow a team to be over the salary maximum. 

Any free agent will either be restricted or unrestricted - it depends on a player's age and years of experience in the NHL. A restricted free agent is just that - restricted. There are limits placed on his negotiations with other teams, offers, etc. A restricted free agent needs at least a little bit of leverage, and that's where salary arbitration comes in. If a restricted free agent and his team cannot reach a deal, the player can file for arbitration. 

Through arbitration, a third party will come up with a fair salary for the next year based on that player's: 1) overall performance/statistics from all previous years, 2) length of service with that team and years in the NHL, 3) "overall contribution" to the success of a team, 4) "intangibles" like leadership and public appeal, and 5) performance and salary of a comparable player, provided that the comparable player did not just sign as an unrestricted free agent. After the arbitrator comes up with the number, the team has 48 hours to sign the player, trade the player at that salary, or walk away.

Any questions?

So let's look at all this information in the context of the Blackhawks. Chicago already has some big-name players signed to enormous deals. Kane and Towes recently signed 5-year, $31.5 million extensions, Hossa was signed to a 12-year, $62.8 million deal, Brian Campbell recently began an 8-year, $56.8 million deal, and back-up goalie Cristobal Huet is warming the bench to the pleasant tune of $22.45 million over four years.

All these huge deals leave the Blackhawks in dire need of clearing cap space. In fact, earlier this offseason, they traded their best player during the playoffs (Dustin Byfuglien) to the Atlanta Thrashers along with Ben Eager and Brent Sopel. The team still needs to sign 6 players to fill out the 22-man roster, and has only $3.1 million to use. If the Blackhawks had signed Niemi to his $2.75 arbitration award, it would have become virtually impossible to complete their roster.

And the statistics don't work in Niemi's favor either. Niemi was 4th during the regular season in goals against average. But this is a misleading stat - it's just as much a reflection of the defense as it is of the goaltender. His save percentage - a more telling statistic - was .912, putting him at 20th overall. In fact, he's one percentage point behind the man who'll be replacing him, Marty Turco.

And don't forget, in 6 Stanley Cup Finals games, Niemi let the puck in 22 times. Yikes. At first glance, getting rid of Niemi seemed like a real head-scratcher. But crunch the numbers and add up the dollars, and it makes quite a bit of sense.

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