Itís hard to believe that NHL training camp will get underway in less than a month. It doesnít seem all that long ago that the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup. Not that Iím complaining, as I look forward to a good hip check, a wicked slap shot and a great glove save. There are still some free agents out there for teams to grab, but for the most part rosters are pretty well set. That being said, with the Blackhawks' decision to release Antti Niemi once he won his arbitration hearing, there is still a good young goaltender out there for someone to grab. Since there isnít all that much goalie news at this time of year, weíre going to go over a few teams that might be interested in Niemi.
New York Islanders:
Dwayne Roloson will turn 41 in October so he surely isnít the goaltender of the future. Rick DiPietro hasnít been healthy in what seems like forever, but his massive contract would make you think he might at least get a shot at some point this season. He's reportedly healthy (for now), and should be available to start the year. The Islanders also drafted goaltenders at the top of the second and third rounds of the 2009 NHL draft. What Iím trying to say is although the Isles could certainly meet Niemiís contract demands, as they are well under the salary cap, general manager Garth Snow has already stated that Niemi is not in the Islanders' plans. Although Niemi would seem to be an automatic upgrade for the Isles, it seems they would like to give DiPietro at least one more crack to prove he is fully healthy and can handle the No. 1 job. DiPietro is signed until 2020, so if he canít handle the job, his contract will be a huge albatross hanging over the organization for years to come.
The Flyers would also be an interesting place for Niemi to land. Philadelphia gambled on Ray Emery last season and when that roll turned up snake eyes they lucked out by plucking Michael Leighton off the waiver wire from the Hurricanes. Leighton came in and played exceptionally well, leading the Flyers to the Stanley Cup finals. The question is, are the Flyers comfortable with Leighton starting for them all season? Answer: probably not, but they are smack up against the cap and have already had to make a salary dump or two this season. Niemi would just cost too much.
The Capitals wouldnít be a bad landing spot for Niemi either. They seem to have all the pieces in place to make a strong run at the Cup. Of course, with Alexander Ovechkin on your team, you always have the pieces in place. With Jose Theodore no longer in the picture, Semyon Varlamov gets the starting nod, although he's had an up-and-down career in the nationís capital. Once again Niemi would seem to be an upgrade, but perhaps not a big enough one for the Caps to justify the cap hit. Varlamov has shown glimpses of excellence and the team also has confidence in backup Michal Neuvirth. Looks like they are going to take a pass at this point in time.
The Canadiens have a pretty big mess in goal right now. They traded Jaroslav Halak to the Blues in the offseason, a move that surprised many as Halak had outplayed Carey Price and was a cult hero in leading the Canadiens on an incredible playoff run. What made the trade even more confusing was that Price is a restricted free agent, and by trading Halak, the team gave Price all of the negotiating power. Predictably, contract talks are crawling along at a snailís pace. Niemiís name is starting to be heard in connection with Les Habitants. Is this for real, or is the team leaking this story to give themselves some leverage during negotiations?
I know Niemi is not heading back to Chicago, but I would be remiss if I didnít mention that once Niemi won his arbitration case and was released by the by Blackhawks, the team went out and signed Marty Turco. Turco was average at best last season, sporting a 2.72 GAA and 91.3 SV%. Perhaps signing with the defending Stanley Cup champs will reinvigorate Turco and propel him to a solid season. At the very least, you know heís going to get some wins. Even though Chicago had to unload a bunch of talent, they are still a formidable team. As for Cristobal Huet, the goaltender who was the starter at the beginning of last season, the team is in talks with a Swiss team to let him play there this season. This would not alleviate the Hawks from paying his salary, but it would prevent said salary from counting against the cap. If this agreement were to fall apart, Huet is ticketed to play in the AHL this season so that his contract, once again, would not count against the cap.
Once again, Niemi is not going to end up in Edmonton as they just signed Nikolai Khabibulin to a four-year contract before last season began. As for Khabibulin, his trial for drunk driving in Arizona has been postponed a few times due to legal issues. As the court calendar now stands, the trial could spill over into training camp and possibly into the regular season. Not to mention that any punishment the justice system doles out to Khabibulin could also force him to miss games. This is a mess in Edmonton right now and certainly a distraction. If Khabibulin were to miss any games, Devan Dubnyk looks to be the first in line to get playing time, with Jeff Deslauriers close behind. No matter what happens though, the Oilers are a rebuilding team and unlikely to give you the results you want in the crease.
San Jose Sharks:
San Jose might have been a natural landing spot for Niemi after the team decided to let Evgeni Nabokov leave via free agency, but they had already signed Antero Nittymaki by the time Niemi shook free. Seems unlikely that they would now go out and sign Niemi, although if his price comes down, anything could happen.