Despite Criticism, Bowman Got it Right Choosing Crawford Over Niemi

When Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman decided to let Antti Niemi walk rather than match his arbitration award, the fanbase held its breath collectively.

How could Bowman not lock up the only Blackhawks goaltender in 49 years to lead the franchise to a Stanley Cup and turn to a netminder past his prime? Forget the salary-cap constraints, fans said, Niemi is the backbone the ‘Hawks needed to make another run.

Bowman instead signed Marty Turco to take Niemi’s spot in goal, though Bowman’s decision wasn’t as black and white as the critics made it seem. He didn’t choose Turco over Niemi, he chose Corey Crawford – and rightfully so.

Supposedly hamstrung after matching San Jose’s four-year, $14 million offer sheet for Niklas Hjalmarsson, Bowman simply couldn’t afford the $2.75 million salary due Niemi following the hearing. Bowman insisted he made multi-year offers to Niemi and his agent following the Cup run, but Niemi’s camp never bit and took the Blackhawks all the way to the end.

And that may have been Bowman’s plan all along.

The ‘Hawks attempted to solve their goaltending needs through expensive free-agent signings in years past. Four years and $27 million for Nikolai Khabibulin in 2005, then four years and $22.5 million for Cristobal Huet in 2008. Bowman simply refused to overpay for a goaltender and further doom the Blackhawks financially – especially knowing Huet would be paid $5.6 million to play elsewhere in 2010-11.

Signing Turco for $1.2 million saved money toward an already fragile cap situation. Niemi eventually signed with the Sharks for $2 million, meaning Crawford for the first time in his career knew he had a guaranteed spot with the big club.

Yes, the same Crawford who Bowman believed was on equal footing with Niemi heading into the 2009-10 season.

Crawford and Niemi battled through training camp to be Huet’s backup, lasting so long the ‘Hawks took both on the trip to Finland for the back-to-back season openers against the Florida Panthers. Niemi eventually won the job and helped make history, though Bowman’s opinion of Crawford never waivered:

“(Crawford’s) spent a number of years developing in our system and I think the time is now for him to get an opportunity to show us what he can do,” Bowman said. “He’s certainly had a chance to learn his craft in the minor leagues. He’s carried the load down there year after year. I think it’s time for him. That’s one of the things we’re looking forward to, is you have to give players an opportunity.”

Bowman’s decision to part ways with Niemi wasn’t about Turco as much as it was about Crawford’s ability to take the reigns in 2011-12. The plan was to ride Turco for a season while grooming Crawford to take over a year later. Much like Niemi’s unexpected rise, Crawford became the clear-cut No. 1 by mid-November and the Blackhawks won at a 103-point pace the rest of the season.

Bowman made a bold decision which turned out to be correct much earlier than he anticipated. Niemi’s play this season earned him a four-year, $15.2 million extension from San Jose – an extension he never would have received from the ‘Hawks. Despite the fact Crawford played on par with Niemi while having a weaker team in front of him, Bowman will be able to sign Crawford long-term cheaper than Niemi.

Compare the numbers:

Crawford became a large reason the Blackhawks were able to make the playoffs given some major disappointments and depleted depth in front of him – and one of the only reasons they were able to take Vancouver to seven games in their first-round series. Crawford may have been a finalist for the Calder Trophy if it wasn’t for breakout seasons of Jeff Skinner, Logan Couture and Michael Grabner, and many in the hockey media believe Crawford was the biggest snub for the award.

Crawford’s 2.30 goals-against average ranked eighth in the NHL, and his 33 wins ended up tied for 14th. However, he started the same amount of games as Boston’s Tim Thomas (55) and finished with only two less victories.

Bowman’s decision seemed questionable at the time, but it turned out to be the correct one – one year early.

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  • The Resurrection of David Krejci

    Hey, Bartl, now that you have to change your blog, you have two options. Go with the Lovabulls for a couple more weeks until the Truth steamrolls them or just do it and go full-time Bruins. How do the B’s matchup with the Canucks? Is Jack Edwards the greatest story teller of all-time? Those are questions you can start with, If Yaaaaaa Smmmelllllll, what Claude is Cookin’.

    • Jeffrey Bartl

      Rather than discussing the Bulls, the C’s should be thinking about LeBron. And since Claude was coaching for his job last night – much like Alain Vigneault against the ‘Hawks – I’m assuming Claude will do something to completely screw up that series against Philly. Get ready to see highlights of that 0-3 comeback. If yaaaaa smmmmellll what Claude (Giroux) is cookin’.

      • The Ghost of David Krejci

        Hahaha, Lebron beating the Celtics, you are a funny dude. The B’s losing to Philly is one thing, but at least they took care of America Jr. All you did was weaken a country Tuesday, that’s all you did.

        Keep living in last year, and watch as the thousands of Claud-o-maniacs run wild over you!

        • Jeffrey Bartl

          Hahahaha, pulling out quotes from “A Few Good Men?” Nicely done.

      • http://blackhawkup Elle Pelfresne

        Jeff, another great post. I’ve been a huge hockey fan for a cuople of yaers now and being a teenage girl none of my friends really care about hockey at all. So when I found this blog at the begining of the season I fell in love with it. The quality of the discussions were outstanding and you and Tim are both very good writers. Please keep the posts coming throughout the summer with any blackhawk news!

  • rich Lindbloom

    It’s funny how many fans who just became interested in the hawks the last few seasons, (And there’s nothing wrong with that), still think the Hawk organization got rid of players to save money. The same organization that ate about 6 million clams of Huet’s contract so they could rebuild the salary cap decimated team.

    At the time, I much preferred losing Niemi than Hjarlmarrson. Hopefully Niklas rebounds next season. I don’t think anyone will want to pay him $3.5 mill the next few seasons.

    i’ve always liked Crawford and early in the year wrote that I hoped this was the year he claimed the pipes – mission accomplished. Now we can only hope he doesn’t have Niemi’s agent.

    It’s nice to see someone give credit to Bowman once in awhile, although there certainly have been some lame-brained moves. Can you imagine what would have been done to Stan if Crawford hadn’t stepped up to the plate? The Niemi decision would have gone down in the annals of hockey as one of the worst GM decisions ever.

    I think a lot of people forget Crawford was a high draft pick – the Hawks new he had game. I don’t think anyone anticipated just how well he’d play this season though.

    Regardless, I’m thinking the days of paying over $4 million for a net minder are gone. Finland keeps spitting out goal tenders like a politicians promises.

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  • Pete

    Crawford played phenomenally this season and just seemed to get better and better as the season went on. I mean seriously, that game 7 performance was just off the charts – Vancouver probably should have had 3 or 4 goals in the 3rd period alone but Corey just kept turning them away. There is one point though that you did not bring up concerning the Niemi vs Crawford decision in the fall of ’09. The ‘Hawks could send Crawford back to Rockford with no repercussions last year, but they were out of AHL options with Niemi so to send him back down he would have had to clear waivers first. My understanding is that management had fairly equal opinions on both goalies and the fact that Niemi would have had to clear waivers was one of the major deciding factors. It certainly appears to have worked out, though, because while Niemi led us to the cup I liked what I saw from Crawford this year much more than anything Niemi ever showed. Let’s lock him up soon before some jacka$$ team like the Islanders tries to screw us by tendering him (or another player like Frolik or Campoli) an offer sheet like the Sharks did with Hjalmarsson last year

    • Jeffrey Bartl

      Thanks for noting the “options” point, Pete, which I failed to do. That would even support the arguement more of Crawford possibly being up last year rather than Niemi. If they both had the same options, and everyone believed the two to be on equal footing, what’s to say Crawford doesn’t get the nod as Huet’s backup? Thanks for the comment as always, Pete.

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