Both Antti Niemi, the first Finnish Goaltender to win the cup (rookie year no less), and Ilya Kovalchuk, one of the league’s best scorers, are still free agents. Is this surprising? Not really.
We all thought Kovalchuk signed a contract with the New Jersey Devils. Unfortunately for both parties, the contract was turned down by the NHL. The NHL and arbitrator Richard Bloch came to the decision that the contract was constructed to evade the cap restrictions and was therefore illegal. He earned the large contract and the entire league knows it.
Knowing his talent level and his desire for a big contract, Kovalchuk will have trouble working out a contract wherever he goes. Owners look to build around players with his level of skill; starting over by refreshing the roster is hard to do when the player is signed out of free agency.
Kovalchuk has led his team in scoring, along with many other accomplishments as a forward. His next mission is to win the Stanley Cup. He is very devoted to this goal.
The Devils are always team players who work hard every game as a team (every team has those days where the feet don’t want to move). For the Devils’ style of play to happen, everyone on and off the ice must be a team player. Just as important, each player must be on the same wavelength as everyone else. A player with an attitude would stick out like a sore thumb, and would be cast from the system, no matter how talented the player is.
The surprise with Kovalchuk is that he started out in the league with the Atlanta Thrashers, a franchise that modeled the team around him. He was able to put any ego aside and be a New Jersey Devil, working towards fitting into the defensive style of play. Makes sense why the Devils want him to continue wearing the red, back, and white sweater.
Kovalchuk will probably be a Devil. He wants to win, and the Devils have been one missing piece away from winning the cup. What is the hold up? Put simply, the right contract.
Niemi is in the same pool as some other rookie goaltenders that posted notable playoff runs. A couple of those players include Dwayne Roloson and Jean-Sebastien Giguere.
Since Roloson helped the Edmonton Oilers represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup Finals in 2006, he has not been so spectacular, currently backing up for Rick Dipietro with the Islanders. Giguere has a similar story. In 2003, he powered the Anaheim Mighty Ducks’ run at the cup, falling short against the New Jersey Devils in the finals. Now Giguere is no longer even a notable goaltender.
Is Niemi heading in the same direction or will he be successful as a starter elswhere? Did the excitement of a rookie season help him play better than should be expected of him during his career like Giguere and Roloson? Is it that he is expecting more money than he is worth after the cup win? Was it the Chicago Blackhawks’ defense that did the job, or the offense which masked his play, perhaps both?
As far as whats in store for Niemi’s future, who knows for sure? He could become better or he may become a dud. Based on some of the games he played in the regular season and the postseason, there is room for improvement. Also, he only played 39 regular season games for the Blackhawks, not exactly an impressive résumé. There is doubt whether he can lead a team through an entire season, let alone the regular season. Not worth the money.