Blackhawks goalie Antti Niemi awarded $2.75 million in arbitration

Goalie Antti Niemi has been awarded a $2.75 million salary for next season, an arbitrator's decision that could force the Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks to make another tough decision about their roster.

Niemi earned $826,875 last season as a rookie. He played all but one period of Chicago's postseason run to the title, going 16-6 with a 2.63 goals-against average, .910 save percentage and two shutouts.

To remain under the NHL's $59.4 million salary cap, the Blackhawks may have offered as little as $2 million to Niemi, who has played in just 42 regular-season games in his career. The NHL Players Association confirmed the arbitrator's ruling on Saturday.

During a conference call Thursday, Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman said the team is close to the cap and what Niemi was awarded would determine what the franchise's next move would be.

Chicago has two days to decide whether to accept or walk away from the arbitrator's decision. The team also could decide to trade Niemi.

Niemi, 26, filed for arbitration as a restricted free agent after his agent, Bill Zito, and Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman were unable to agree on contract terms.

Since winning their first Stanley Cup in 49 years, the Blackhawks have shed a handful players from their roster, either via trade or free agency, to remain under the cap next season. Their situation is complicated by some $4 million in player performance bonuses that were earned last season but will be charged against their 2010-11 cap limit.