The Lesson Learned: See Ya, Marty

Photo: CBS Chicago

So you ask your girlfriend to prom, and she hems and haws for a while until right before the dance, then her dad tells you she’ll only go with you if you pay her $2.75 million dollars. So you break up with her right then and there, and she goes off to prom with some other guy, even though he only paid her $2 million and you’re the reigning Prom King. But by this time all of the hot girls are either already have dates or are going to prom at some Russian school. Your previous girlfriend was too much hassle, and you wouldn’t want to go with her anyhow — and besides, her family is moving to Switzerland.

Now what?

Well, your friend from Dallas just broke up with his girlfriend: will she go with you? And more importantly, will she put out?

That was the position the Blackhawks found themselves in when they were the last guy without a date to the dance — or more accurately, without a rock-solid starting goaltender who could help them defend their Stanley Cup Championship. As politics sometimes makes for strange bedfellows, so, it would seem, does the NHL free agent market. Longtime Blackhawks nemesis and former Dallas Stars goaltender Marty Turco signed a one-year deal in late-summer to take up the torch left smoldering in the rain by the recently-spurned Antti Niemi.

Turco is a very intelligent individual, and is extraordinarily well-spoken for a hockey player. During his first press conference he spoke from the heart and said all the right things, about the organ-eye-zation and his desire to help the Blackhawks repeat their performance from last year. He made for a bountiful media feast as he was introduced to the Chicago press, and that articulate passion quickly brought the once-skeptical fans to his side.

That is, until we learned what his game was like. Does the name “Rogie Vachon” mean anything to anyone?

Turco is not a big guy. He challenges the shooter by playing towards the edge of his crease, but that positioning requires some acrobatics when the cross-ice pass is employed to hit the open man on the far post. Turco is fast and flexible, with a quick glove hand, but he can’t be everywhere at once. This was quickly apparent to players, coaches, and opponents, and his goals-against average reflected it.

Turco also took great pride in his ability to play the puck. He’s got a wicked pass with incredible speed and accuracy, to be sure. And we caught a glimpse of what kind of potential those skills had during pre-season: twice Turco was able to catch opponents in a line change, hit a winger with a pass right on the tape at the far blue line, who then set up a quick goal. It gave fans a lot of hope.

That hope quickly turned sour when fans got a look at how an aggressive forecheck could catch Turco off guard and result in catastrophe. The perfect example of this was in Turco’s last appearance of the season, when one of his passes was picked off by an attacking winger, who had an open net to shoot in while Turco made a fool of himself sprawling in vain to stop it from going in. That was the proverbial last nail in the coffin for Marty, the last of probably 8 or 10 such bone-headed plays during the course of the season. Corey Crawford had the “starter” tag attached to him from that moment on.

I also had a theory that, now that the season is over, I feel comfortable making public. I think Turco’s puck-handling style screwed up our defensemen’s style of play. Breakouts in the Cup season were very regimented. There were two primary set plays, one for pucks over the goal line and one for pucks that were retrieved before the hash marks. The defensive corps worked those plays to perfection during the playoffs last year, and I honestly think adding another variable — who got to the puck first — messed with their rhythm. This is just me spit-balling, but if you look at the games against hard forechecking teams like Nashville when Turco was in net, I think you’ll see what I mean.

At any rate, about 50 games into the regular season, Marty found himself wearing a baseball cap to the game instead of a mask. And fortunately, instead of storming off in a huff like some petulant child, Turco took his demotion in stride. He came to work every day, busted his ass in practice, stayed in top physical shape and made sure he was ready to step in should Crawford go down with an injury. He was the consummate professional, and that was just what a rookie goaltender needed: a seasoned veteran with many years of experience — including playoff experience — taking him under his wing.

It remains to be seen if Turco will accept a backup role going forward, or if he still thinks he’s got one or two good seasons ahead of him as a starter — somewhere. If he would be willing to take a small pay cut and be willing to continue his role as a mentor and 25-game player, I think the Blackhawks might have him — if we can get the “Myocardial Marty” play under control. But that’s a long shot on both sides of that discussion, and only time will tell. The safe money says that Turco will probably look back on his year in Chicago as the lesson learned: Dallas was right after all, and he was lucky to get another year in the big leagues.

See ya, Marty. Sorry it didn’t work out. We would have loved to have you if you had just won 10 more games. But it’s probably for the better anyhow. I gave you an extra half-Indian-Head for being a good sport and doing the right thing by the team when your time was up. You deserve it.

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