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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