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Arbitrator's decision on Blackhawks goalie Antti Niemi expected by Saturday

CHICAGO - Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman expects to learn on Saturday whether his salary cap-squeezed team will be able to keep restricted free agent goaltender Antti Niemi, who backstopped Chicago to its first Stanley Cup in 49 years last spring.

After Bowman and Niemi's agent, Bill Zito, were unable to reach contract terms for the 26-year-old netminder, the case advanced to an arbitration hearing Thursday in Toronto. Both Bowman and the NHL Players Association presented their cases and undisclosed one-year salary figures to an arbitrator, who has 48 hours to make a decision.

The arbitrator can choose either side's offer, or any amount between the two, per the NHL's collective bargaining agreement.

"The arbitrator will make the ruling, I believe, sometime on Saturday," Bowman said during a conference call Thursday evening. "At that point we have 48 hours to accept or walk away from the award, or trade the award.

"To be simple, it will depend on what the number is," he added. "I'm not going to get into the dollar amount. Our cap situation is tight. Depending on where it is, it will drive the boat."

Niemi earned US$826,875 last season as a rookie. He played all but one period of the Blackhawks' post-season run to the championship, 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. He took over as the team's top goalie last year, appearing in 39 regular-season games, and went 26-7-4 with seven shutouts, a 2.25 goals-against average and .912 save percentage.

Bowman characterized the hearing as calm and routine.

"It wasn't a contentious thing at all, truthfully" he said. "Both sides were there arguing the merits of their case and highlighting the benefits of their side.

"Obviously, Antti was a successful player and a big part of our team. But when it comes down to the business side, you have to look at comparable players and their situations."

Since winning the Cup in June, the Blackhawks have shed seven players from their roster, either via trade or free agent signings, 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.

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