Chicago Blackhawks goal tender Cristobal Huet will probably get every opportunity to keep his status as a starter, at least until the Olympic break. But when March begins, coach Joel Quenneville will zero in on which goalie to ride into the playoffs.
For the perfect Blackhawk script to play out for the rest of this season and into the summer:
Antti Niemi would get to play in goal for about 30 games and merit strong consideration for the starting job. That way, the Hawks' front office will know how far to bend when it comes to re-signing him this summer.
Niemi is eligible for salary arbitration, which makes a big difference. If not, the Hawks could have played hard ball and then hoped an offer sheet would not be tendered to their promising young net minder.
Niemi would have fewer options were it not for his salary arbitration status. But now he could put some additional painful strain on the Blackhawks' salary cap concerns. If Niemi continues to play frequently, it would be easier for the Hawks brass to decide his value.
To complete a perfect scenario for the Blackhawks, Huet would perform well enough to win in the playoffs. As long as Huet can win a postseason series or two, he could solidify his status as a top-flight starting goal tender.
If my script plays out, the Hawks would decide to sign Niemi to a contract extension with a nice a raise. Because Huet performed well in the postseason, he would then become an interesting trade option. The end result would be that the Hawks would solidify their starting goal tending position while creating salary cap space for next year.
Huet would only have two years left on his contract, which is set to pay him $5.6 million each season. He would be expensive but still could be an attractive option for the right suitor. The opportunity to trade Huet would become more likely if an interested party also has other available Hawks on their shopping list.
There could be one NHL general manager desperate to quickly rebuild his forlorn franchise and in need of a proven starting goalie.
Toronto Maple Leafs' General Manager Brian Burke has let the word out he will be active before the trade deadline.
It has been mentioned Burke will be willing to take on expiring big dollar contracts in exchange for draft picks. He will also be looking to deal some of his veterans in exchange for 2010 draft selections.
Burke's draft pick cupboard is bare because of the acquisition of Phil Kessel, so he needs to accumulate selections to use in trades this summer. That will provide the opportunity for Hawks General Manager Stan Bowman to swing a big deal with the Leafs.
If Burke can maneuver out of his corner and acquire draft picks, then he could be in position to take on salary this summer. He would be a likely trade partner for Chicago.
The Blackhawks will have skillful, experienced, reasonably priced players on the trade market by draft day. It is unlikely Burke will choose to rebuild slowly, only through the draft.
The Hawks have trade chips to sweeten the pot to entice Burke to take on Huet's hefty contract. Toronto's management and fans realize their current goal tending situation is sketchy.
If my script sounds far fetched, consider the following.
Burke has nine upcoming unrestricted free agents on his current roster and a big checkbook. Toronto fans want to win yesterday. The Leafs needs proven young players to help jump start their rebuilding process. The Blackhawks will be dealing players fitting that exact profile this summer, for draft picks.
Toronto has a promising young goalie that appears not ready for prime time yet while unrestricted free agent Vesa Toskala has struggled and will likely be gone.
Rookie Jonas Gustavsson is only 25 years old, and has a heart condition. Hopefully his medical concerns won't cut short his playing career. In any event, it appears Gustavsson would have a better chance of success if he can be brought along slowly in the Toronto media pressure cooker.
Huet could give the Leafs a legitimate, veteran starting goal tender and a mentor for Gustavsson. Burke could help the Hawks salary cap struggles and leverage another player or two from them, which would immediately help his rebuilding cause.
The Leafs would get better quickly and the Hawks could solve their salary cap problems with limited roster changes. Although a Blackhawks roster turnover is coming, trading Huet would make things a lot easier for Bowman.
Everything would have to fall into place for my script to play out.
So far Burke is looking to acquire draft picks and Gustavsson is 0-8 in overtime games.
If Huet and Niemi continue to shine, the Hawks and Leafs could become perfect trade partners.
My script ends with a rare outcome. Everyone gets what they need.
From the Blackhawks media department...
The current road trip will span some 7,800 miles.
The Hawks have out-shot their opponents a league high 44 times. They also lead the NHL with a .682 winning percentage when doing so.
Chicago has the best GAA (2.23) in the Western Conference.
Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are the top scoring defensive pair in the league (14G-53A).
Additional work by Al Cimaglia can be found at HockeyIndependent.com