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Will 'Hawks walk away from Niemi?

Within 48 hours, we'll know the true extent of the dismantling job facing Chicago Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman.

Within 48 hours, an arbitrator, who heard evidence from the Blackhawks and netminder Antti Niemi's agent Thursday morning, will deliver a decision on just how much a Stanley Cup-winning goaltender is worth.

If the arbitrator decides Niemi's worth much more than $3 million a year, Bowman may have no choice but to walk away from the decision, making Niemi an unrestricted free agent shortly before his 27th birthday.

The Blackhawks, already over the salary cap and facing a huge salary crunch before the start of training camp, will have 48 hours after the arbitrator's decision to make up their minds.

There are rumors the 'Hawks will accept the decision and then try and trade Niemi so they don't end up losing a top asset without getting anything back in return. But the marketplace for goaltenders is soft to begin with, and any team dealing with the Blackhawks, let's say Philadelphia or San Jose or Washington, all Cup contending teams that could use goaltending depth, will know they've got the team over a barrel and will be offering little in return.

Still, another draft pick can always come in handy, and it'll be better than nothing if it comes to that.

The problem, along with not having enough money under the salary cap to simply pay Niemi, is whether the soft-spoken Finn is worth keeping if it means moving another part of an already-depleted Blackhawk lineup. Bowman has already jettisoned Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, who signed a one-year deal in Atlanta ahead of an arbitration hearing Thursday, Ben Eager, Kris Versteeg, Adam Burish, Colin Fraser and Brent Sopel since the 'Hawks Cup parade in mid June. John Madden is an unsigned unrestricted free agent and isn't expected to return to Chicago.

Apart from Byfuglien perhaps, none of the departed had as significant impact on the 'Hawks' Cup run as Niemi, who was 16-6 with a .910 save percentage and 2.63 GAA.

Yet this past season marked Niemi's first as a starter in the NHL, and he played in just 39 regular-season games before running the table in the playoffs.

Although steady throughout, Niemi wasn't all that impressive in the final, and in fact, had it not been for even more uneven goaltending from his counterpart in Philadelphia, Michael Leighton, the 'Hawks' first Cup win since 1961 would have been in great jeopardy.

If the Blackhawks walk away from Niemi, they will almost certainly set their sights on a veteran like Marty Turco or Jose Theodore, who would have to agree to play for somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 million.

Would it be worth it to Turco who turned down similar money earlier this summer to play in Philadelphia to get a shot at a Stanley Cup?

One would think so.

Or is the risk of giving up on a goaltending prospect like Niemi so great that Bowman will have no choice but to bite the bullet and agree to the arbitration award and simply find another body to throw over the side before the start of the season?

So many questions in Chicago in this summer of the Cup and no easy answers on the horizon.


Speaking of arbitrators, don't expect a hearing to be held on the contentious Ilya Kovalchuk contract with the New Jersey Devils this week. Next week is more likely, and it's believed the evidence presented to the arbitrator, whenever he is agreed upon by the league and the players' association, will likely take a couple of days to hear.

As for the idea that the independent arbitrator could restructure the 17-year deal that the league rejected, claiming it circumvented the collective bargaining agreement, a source told ESPN.com Thursday that is highly, highly unlikely to happen. In other words, the decision will be to uphold the contract as agreed upon by Kovalchuk and the New Jersey Devils or to strike it down after which Kovalchuk would return to unrestricted free agent status.