Niemi Number, Amonte 40, Tonight’s TTMI~Radio

First off, a reminder. Tonight on TheThirdManIn~Radio, I’ll be pleased to welcome John and BlackhawksBob, writers over at the outstanding Blackhawks blog, FifthFeather.com.

Tonight’s show airs live at 8pm (central) and you can listen live at BlogTalkRadio.com/TheThirdManIn. And if you can’t join us live, the show will be posted on this site and at BTR shortly after we go off the air.

We encourage your phone calls, emails or Tweets as well. The number to call into the show is listed on the show page during the stream.

I’m sure its rather obvious the main topic of tonight’s discussion, so I don’t feel the need for a teaser here. But we’ll also cover how the many alterations to the Cup Champions roster will impact the Blackhawks chance at a repeat; this weekend’s Blackhawks Convention; how the Blackhawks still managed to lose money in 2010 and the McDonough Monologues.

— Saturday, we learned of the arbitrator’s decision in the contract case between the Chicago Blackhawks and their Stanley Cup champion goaltender, and restricted free agent, Antti Niemi. By lunchtime today, we’ll know what the Hawks think of it.

Niemi was awarded a one-year $2.75 million deal for the upcoming season. Next summer he will be scheduled to become an un-restricted free agent.

Over the weekend rumors surfaced of the Blackhawks allegedly having made an unofficial side-agreement with Dallas Stars UFA goaltender Marty Turco for one-year and anywhere between $1.5 to $2.0M. Turco, a nine-year NHL veteran, turns 35 on August 13th.

Turco, a Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario native and University of Michigan graduate, has seen his numbers decline in each of the past two seasons with the Stars and has not led his club to the playoffs since 2008.

On Sunday night, WGN-TV’s Dan Roan reported the Blackhawks have come to terms with Turco and a deal, as reported by Roan, would be made official today.

Quickly news spread of Turco’s “signing” across social networking platforms but several reporters, including Chicago Tribune Hawks’ writer Chris Kuc and the Sun-Times Adam Johns, refuted WGN-TV’s report saying they were unable to confirm the signing or that their sources had denied an agreement, as of last night, with Turco exists.

Everything will become clear and we’ll know soon enough.

Until then, there’s really nothing to comment on.

I highly doubt the Hawks will let Niemi walk entirely without getting any compensation for him. $2.75M is a figure the Hawks can manage under their cap with a little creativity.

The easiest solution would be to trade Tomas Kopecky for a minor leaguer or draft pick. With his $1.2M (Kopecky is a UFA next summer) off the books, and a player with a contract of about 850k or less, Niemi fits in many scenarios in which the Hawks carry a 21 man roster.

Of course, Stan Bowman would prefer more flexibility. The above mock roster would all but guarantee Kyle Beach would be stuck in Rockford barring injuries. Turco coming in at $1.75, as Dan Roan reported Sunday night, would give Stan Bowman a little more comfort and players like Beach and Lalonde renewed chance at making the big club out of training camp.

As we discussed on last Thursday’s TTMI~Radio, declining Niemi’s arbitration reward would be a statement by the organization that they value a third line center over a vastly-improving 26 year old goaltender whose poise and athleticism helped win the organization its first championship in 49 years.

If Niemi were to move on, a signing of Turco or Washington Capitals UFA goaltender Jose Theodore would not only lead to a drop-off at the position this season, it would also be a step backwards for the organization.

In Niemi, the Blackhawks lucked into a quality number one when Cristobal Huet faltered. Without Niemi, the organization is re-forming their situation of a year ago. No matter Turco or Theodore, you have a goalie on the decline whereas Niemi showed improvement all throughout last season. The pressure on an outside netminder to perform every outing will be tremendous. While his body of work is only that of a rookie, those are still some sizeable footwear Niemi would leave behind.

Which brings us to the greater question. Is Corey Crawford ready or capable of repeating Niemi’s path should Marty Turco be unable to shoulder the load. That determination is where Stan Bowman’s decision should be made.

Walking away would put the Blackhawks right back on the market for a franchise goalie next summer no matter how well Turco plays this season. If Turco turns in a huge year, he’ll be looking for a contract the Hawks won’t be willing to hand a 36-year old goalie, just as they didn’t in 2009 when they were in talks to retain Nikolai Khabibulin on a one-year term. Edmonton called, offered three and Khabibulin was gone.

Unless Crawford sees 40 games and playoff time, Stan Bowman would likely be understandably reluctant to hand the reigns off to him, so he’d be in the same situation Dale Tallon was in 2008 – burning the phone lines on July 1st with a blank check in his hand, pleading for a number one goalie.

Isn’t that what got us into this mess?

If you don’t believe in Corey Crawford, the Hawks do not appear to have another goaltender in the system anywhere near ready to start behind a championship contender. If the Hawks are forced to house Huet in Rockford, his presence will only further inhibit the enhancement of young prospects at the position.

All the more reason to stick with Niemi. If the Finnish backstop hits a rough stretch or struggles from time to time, fans and Quenneville will give him more rope than they would afford to an outsider.

Perhaps difficult negotiations with Niemi and agent Bill Zito will factor into Stan Bowman’s final decision? If he figures there’s little chance he’ll have the resources to satisfy Niemi’s demands on the open market, trading Niemi now for a prospect and a high draft pick might be his best move.

Bowman could also be appraising this season as a rebuilding year. Yes, the Hawks will be a very good team with as good a chance as any to win the Central, but with the depth lost and the inexperience of those who will be asked to replace Ladd, Byfuglien, Versteeg, Sopel, Eager, Madden and Huet – it could take a season to reshape the Hawks into Cup contenders. If that is the case, and he sees Niemi’s demands as impossible, Bowman’s focus should be on giving Crawford a full audition at the NHL level and keeping two goalie spots open in Rockford for youngsters he needs to evaluate properly.

Whatever the case, we’ll have a good indication very soon.

This day in Chicago Blackhawks history…..

- First off, Happy Birthday to Tony Amonte, who turns 40 today.

- 5 years ago today, Dale Tallon signed defenseman Adrian Aucoin to a 4-year, $16M contract.

- Today is not a good day to remember free agent signings. But then again, how many good free agent signings in Blackhawks’ history are there? On this day in 1999, Bob Murray signed LW-Wendel Clark (apprx three months shy of this 33rd b-day at the time) to a one-year deal worth $1.4M. Clark was signed after finishing the 1998-99 season with Detroit, a year he posted 32 goals in stints with the Red Wings and Tampa Bay Lightning. Clark would skate in just 13 games with Chicago, scoring 2 goals. Not even two months into his stay with the Hawks, Bob Murray waived Clark and negotiated a buy-out of the veteran’s contract (reported to be about $1M, so the Hawks wound up paying most of his guaranteed salary) clearing the way for Clark’s return to Toronto, where he had his glory years and to this day remains a legend. Clark did not leave on good terms or have much nice to say about Murray, or head coach Lorne Molleken, who both believed Clark was a 3rd liner at best on that year’s team after seeing him in camp and at the start of the season. They weren’t wrong. Clark retired after the 1999-00 season. He scored 2 goals and 2 assists in 20 games with the Leafs. And another goal and one assist in six playoff games before hanging his skates for good.

— We’ll return with another report later today with reaction to the Niemi decision and much more.

ChrisBlock@TheThirdManIn.com

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