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James Mirtle

Blackhawks pay the price of success Add to ...

It's become the customary cycle of life in the NHL under its new collective agreement, one where teams spend years building up a contender only to have to then take a few steps back after climbing the mountain.

A year ago, it was the back-to-back Stanley Cup finalists in the Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins who fell into salary-cap hell, having to watch as key contributors like Marian Hossa, Mikael Samuelsson, Jiri Hudler, Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill all moved on for bigger paycheques elsewhere.

Those losses, however, were but minor reconstruction jobs compared to what the hockey world has witnessed this summer with the Chicago Blackhawks shuttling out eight regulars from their championship roster in a bid to squeeze under the $59.4-million (all currency U.S.) cap.

The latest casualty on that front came Monday when Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman made one last gut-wrenching call by walking away from starting netminder Antti Niemi's one-year, $2.75-million arbitration award.

Suddenly, less than two months after having his name mentioned in the running for playoff MVP, the 26-year-old Finn has become an unrestricted free agent, joining former teammates Dustin Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg, Brent Sopel, Andrew Ladd, Ben Eager, John Madden and Adam Burish in the ranks of the dearly departed.

Not missing a beat, Bowman then announced the signing of 34-year-old backstop Marty Turco for $1.3-million, a bargain of a contract that shaves nearly $1.5-million off his payroll, bringing Chicago within one more manoeuvre of finally getting under the cap.

"The players that aren't with us any more, we'll always have that championship together," Bowman said. "We'll always walk together as Stanley Cup champions. [Niemi]was a big part of it, clearly, but we're on to the next thing."

While the decision was a major talking point around the NHL, Bowman had prepared for the worst in negotiations with Niemi and his agent, Bill Zito, from the outset and had been quietly talking to Turco's camp for more than a month.

According to sources with knowledge of the situation, the two sides had reached an understanding strong enough that Turco turned down offers from four other teams - including a three-year deal from the Philadelphia Flyers - in the first few days of free agency last month.

One of the main reasons Niemi become expendable was Turco's willingness to take a steep pay cut to play for the Blackhawks, something he prioritized over all else. He made $5.4-million with the Dallas Stars last season

"Watching the Hawks go into the playoffs, before they started, he was just like, 'God, that would be a team that would be so cool to play for,' " said Turco's agent, Kurt Overhardt. "It was something that we always had our eyes on.

"We turned down more money, we turned down bigger term because we knew that [playing in Chicago]could be a possibility."

Getting under the cap will involve a little more creativity from Bowman, who spoke Monday of promising rookie Corey Crawford (and his modest salary) filling Chicago's backup role behind Turco.

To make that happen, Bowman will have to find last year's backup Cristobal Huet and his bloated $5.625-million deal a new home, either in the minors or overseas.

"I anticipate tackling Huet over the next couple of weeks," Bowman said, not tipping his hand as to how he would pull it off. "We've had a busy six or seven weeks since we won the Cup. We'll get to that, but we're not there yet."

If he's able to offload Huet's contract, Bowman will have roughly $1.7-million cap space and only one more depth defenceman to sign, likely a veteran plucked out of free agency for $800,000 or less. The Blackhawks' bottom six forwards and fifth, sixth and seventh defencemen are set to make a combined $6-million, part of a league-wide trend toward top-heavy lineups.

Chicago's depth, in other words, has gone from its trademark strength to a potential Achilles' heel, and should injuries strike one of their top talents this season, disaster could loom.

That is, in this NHL, the new price of success, as role players on a champion earn bigger paydays and new destinations while their GMs attempt to complement what remains with as many bargain buys as possible.

And your Stanley Cup-winning goaltender can be gone in a heartbeat.

The Blackhawks' goalie carousel:

After winning the Stanley Cup with Antti Niemi and Cristobal Huet in goal, the Chicago Blackhawks plan on entering this coming season with Marty Turco and Corey Crawford. Here's a breakdown of the four goaltenders in play:

Incoming

The newcomer: Marty Turco

The starting netminder for three 100-point Stars teams in the past seven seasons, Turco has more wins (234) than all but Martin Brodeur and Roberto Luongo since 2002-03 but gained a reputation for being a playoff dud after two first-round exits in 2004 and 2006. His career save percentage in the postseason, however, is a solid .914 - better than the .910 mark Niemi posted last season in Chicago's run to the Cup.

Compared to Niemi, Turco is a relative greybeard - he turns 35 next week - but expects to play at least another five years at a competitive level. Behind a Blackhawks defence that allowed the fewest shots in the league (six fewer per game than Dallas) last season, he could rediscover the form that made him a three-time all-star (2003, 2004 and 2007).

Up and comer: Corey Crawford

Expected to battle Niemi for the backup role last fall, Crawford ultimately spent the season as the starter for the Rockford IceHogs, the Blackhawks' American Hockey League affiliate. A second-rounder in 2003, Crawford was an all-star with the Moncton Wildcats in junior and outplayed Niemi when they were together in Rockford in 2008-09.

His $800,000 contract is also a nice fit on a team desperate for cheap options at every position.

Outgoing

On the market: Antti Niemi

One of the NHL's Cinderella stories this spring in backstopping the Hawks to their first Cup in 49 years, Niemi was signed two years ago as an undrafted free agent and gradually took over the starting duties last season from Huet.

Niemi leaves Chicago with a 43-14-5 record including his 16-6 run in the playoffs but won't have many teams knocking down his door. The market for free agent goaltenders is currently ice cold, with only the Nashville Predators and Washington Capitals potentially looking for depth in goal.

As strange as it sounds, there's no guarantee that he even finds an NHL home.

Unwanted: Cristobal Huet

Signed to a cap-killing, four-year, $22.5-million deal in more free-spending days, Huet is now one of the most high profile players in the NHL's new version of no-man's land. No team will want his contract at more than $5.6-million per season, leaving a demotion to Rockford or potential loan to a European team as his only options to keep playing.

Huet turns 35 in September and could potentially opt for early retirement.

Follow on Twitter: @mirtle

 

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