Puck Daddy - NHL

First thing's first: The nearly immediate focus on the Chicago Blackhawks' various salary cap conundrums for next season obscures that fact that they'll be greeted by a welcome mat after 49 years. 

Yes, GM Stan Bowman is going to have to jettison salary through trades, cuts or burying Cristobal Huet(notes) so deeply in Rockford that he hits the Earth's core. But that was the last thing on their minds when they skated the Cup on Wednesday night, and that was the last thing on 2 million minds as they partied in Chicago on Friday.

Which is to say that this uncomfortable cap situation was entirely worth it, as it will be next season and as it will be five years from now when Patrick Kane(notes), Jonathan Toews(notes) and Duncan Keith(notes) will still be under contract.

To argue otherwise is to argue from the standpoint of dynastic fetishism rather than one of appreciation for winning the Cup and solidifying the core during the season. Sure, some of Dale Tallon's elephantine contracts will have to be deleted from the roster, but no one believes that'll reduce this team to an also-ran, do they? Especially when The Big 3 are locked and loaded.

This isn't to say there's one huge, glaring question mark about next season thanks to the team's success: The status of goaltender Antti Niemi(notes), a restricted free agent who is going to make bank this summer. It's a status that's suddenly in question now that the Blackhawks' real cap number, adjusted for postseason bonuses, had come into clarity.

Mirtle did some great digging after James Duthie of TSN broke the news on Toews's Conn Smythe bonus: $1.3 million, which will count against next year's cap.

In fact, both Toews and Patrick Kane maxed out their bonuses in the last year of their entry-level contract. From the Globe & Mail:

Both players maxed out all of their 'A' and ‘B' bonuses this year to push their team over the cap, meaning that while every other team will be working with about a $58.5-million cap next season, Chicago's cap "penalty" will mean a ceiling of closer to $54.5-million.

And the Blackhawks already have $57.6-million in salary commitments with only 14 players signed for next season

Not among those signed players is Niemi, who backstopped the Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup with a 16-6 record, a 2.63 GAA and a .910 save percentage (numbers inflated by his struggle in the Finals against the Philadelphia Flyers). He was streaky in the regular season, but there's no denying his 26-7 record and 2.32 GAA and .912 save percentage.

He'll be 27 this summer, and made $827,000 against the cap last season. So he's due for a slight raise.

Questions are: Will the Blackhawks give him one? Can they afford to give him one? And does Niemi want one from the Blackhawks?

Michael Traikos of the National Post has a killer piece focused on Niemi, getting good material from agent Bill Zito on his client's plans:

If the Blackhawks believe Niemi is a franchise goaltender, then the best route is for the team to sign him to a cap-friendly deal with a lengthy expiration date. That is what Chicago did with defenceman Duncan Keith (US$72-million for 13 years) and Marian Hossa(notes) (US62.8-million for 12 years).

"Which would be smart," Zito said, "if they share our enthusiasm for what he's done and what he would probably do."

But does Niemi want to remain a Blackhawk? Zito said he hadn't spoken to his client at the time of the interview, and wondered if Chicago was the right fit:

"You have to make a smart hockey decision," Zito said. "Where does he want to play? Does he want to be part of this thing?

"This city, it's unbelievable now. But he might say 'no.' In fact, he's the kind of guy who might say, 'I don't like it.' "

"The other night, we were all going to dinner and I was like, 'Hey, we're going to one of these Mexican places, do you want to go?'

"Antti says, 'No. Too many people will see me.'"

Obviously, his status as a restricted free agent makes this more complicated for client and team. The fact that he's a Cup-winning goalie with 37 NHL regular-season starts to his name also makes this unprecedented.

Look at the list of free-agent keepers, both UFA and RFA. There's a lot of fat there, a lot of veterans; how attractive is Niemi when looking at the other options?  

But above all else is that Blackhawks' salary ceiling, which could ultimately determine what Chicago does between the pipes next season. And based on who was there for their Cup run and how the won in the Finals ... does it matter?

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