I’ll get right into this.
I thank Antti Niemi for his contributions to the Blackhawks and for back-stopping Chicago’s first Stanley Cup champion since 1961. His ability to forget goals-against and move onto the next play was a welcome relief from the headcase that was Cristobal Huet. Niemi’s quiet demeanor meant zero backlash toward fans or media when they criticized him, making for a somewhat peaceful situation in net compared to the Huet circus throughout most of the season. He has obvious skills that will be missed.
Is he worth $2.75 million for one season with no guarantee for a future long-term agreement for a cap-strapped team? Especially when the Blackhawks got virtually the same quality for less than half that money in Marty Turco? No. Absolutely not. And since Stan Bowman couldn’t find a trade partner for Niemi — and if you don’t think he tried, you’re a damn idiot — it’s pretty apparent other teams throughout the league feel the same way.
I don’t mean to be a downer here. But I had someone send me a message saying that the decision to let Niemi walk away “will far and away be the decision that determines Stan Bowman’s future as a quality GM in the NHL.” I’m sorry, but that can’t be further from the truth. I don’t feel there was much of a decision to make here, personally.
The Blackhawks just won a Stanley Cup dealing with a goaltending controversy that wasn’t completely settled until March. Bowman viewed Niemi and Corey Crawford as equal talents coming out of training camp, and Bowman solidified that point by publicly stating it’s Crawford’s time to make the big club. Clearly, Bowman doesn’t view goaltending to be a make-or-break position for a contender — and the Blackhawks proved his point this past season.
Investing $2.75 million in Niemi would have strapped the ‘Hawks even further. The extra million dollars in cap space allows for plenty of roster flexibility when the injury bug hits and during the early season evaluating period for the new faces. It may not sound like a lot, but in hockey a million bucks goes a long way.
Once again, people are getting too caught up in the name game. I’m sorry I’m trying to bring this to reality so quickly for those who worship Niemi, but we didn’t just let Patrick Roy go. This wasn’t the 1990s choice of keeping Eddie Belfour over Dominick Hasek. Niemi is a fine goaltender and will have some success elsewhere. But Turco is a more-than-acceptable replacement for a guy nobody even heard of going into camp last season. Before we start flooding Bowman’s office with hate mail, take a step back and realize who Niemi really is: A came-out-of-nowhere goaltender who played well enough behind the best defense in the NHL to not win nor lose games all by himself. You’re telling me Turco can’t do that next season?
Am I in the minority in feeling this way? Yes, there are knocks on Turco. He’s not going to do backflips or stand on his head and start winning Vezina Trophies all of the sudden. And neither is Niemi. The Blackhawks need a serviceable goaltender to make a few key saves.
In Turco, they have that — for $1.45 million less.