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KK Members Blog

Antti Niemi . . . We Hardly Knew Ye

08/03/2010 at 11:57pm EDT

So just like that, the Antti Niemi Era has ended . . . almost as unspectacularly as it began.

This week, the Blackhawks let their rookie Stanley Cup-winning goaltender walk away from a $2.75 million arbitration ruling and ushered in Dallas castoff Marty Turco as his replacement.

Make no mistake: The Niemi Era was short lived, but spectacular.

It began in fits and starts with no small amount of organizational waffling as Joel Quenneville and the Hawks brain trust bent over backwards giving Cristobal Huet every possible chance to cling to the starter’s job. But throughout the regular season, Huet ran from lukewarm to cold, leaving many to wonder about the kid from Finland who was exceptional in most of his backup stints. This went on and on and sometime in March – long after it became apparent to everybody with a functioning pair of eyes that Niemi was the man – Huet gagged hard in an 8-3 loss to lowly Columbus and the Hawks had no choice but to make it official: Huet was toast and Niemi was the Hawks new #1.

Four months and one Stanley Cup championship later, he’s gone. Vapor. A memory.

Everybody knew this summer would be bittersweet, what with the Cup celebration that swept Chicago in June clashing hard with the looming reality of salary cap departures of key personnel. I get that the Hawks lowballed Niemi due to the Cap Hell in which they still reside. But some have been too quick to diminish the agile Finn’s contributions, deeming him the beneficiary of a stingy defense and a potent offense that controlled the puck and limited scoring opportunities. His departure has been met with too much indifference from fans and experts who felt Niemi was just along for the ride.

So let’s honor his meteoric rise and address some of the myths that have been getting their share of play lately:

Niemi was unproven and therefore didn’t deserve a significant raise.

This is perhaps the easiest to shoot down. When you go 16-6 (as a rookie) through an NHL postseason, you officially lose the “un” and become proven. All year long, one of the reasons given for not handing the reins to Niemi was the fact that he was an unknown entity, a few months removed from a stint as a Zamboni driver in Finland. So he went 26-7-4 in 39 regular season appearances. He posted seven shutouts in 35 starts, trailing only Ilya Bryzgalov who had just one more whitewash in 69 starts. Then, when the trade deadline passed with no experienced goalies boarding planes destined for Chicago, experts fell all over themselves questioning the wisdom of taking such a loaded team into the playoffs with such an . . . unproven . . . netminder. We all know how that worked out. Niemi was last seen being humped by Patrick Kane as thousands of Flyers fans sat in stunned silence and the NHL’s Cup minders sprung into action, donning their white gloves to award the Cup to the Blackhawks for the first time in 49 years. Doubters are encouraged to watch the first two games of the Western Conference Finals against San Jose in San Jose for a crash course on Niemi’s value to the Hawks championship run. He helped steal those two games, which set the tone of frustration for the remainder of the series. Proven . . . like a theorem.

Niemi and his agent were greedy and he could have taken less to help keep the band together

This one is most often heard coming from the mouths of simpletons who feel Niemi should be honored by having his 2009-2010 salary of roughly $800,000 doubled. Look, I would love to have some of last year’s Hawks – in a moment of Zen-like clarity – realize there’s more to life than money and accept terms on below-market contracts because they just want to hang and party with their bros. But, in 2010, it’s naïve to think it’s going to (or should) happen. It’s not Niemi’s fault Dale Tallon and Stan Bowman put the organization in such an unenviable position by going for broke, wooing free agents like Marian Hossa and Brian Campbell and Cristobal Huet with lucrative and lengthy deals. Niemi didn’t make them lock up Toews, Kane and Keith as they did, lavishing the youngsters with long-term deals at superstar prices. In fact, by shining the way he did – when he did, after Huet flat-out spit the bit – he saved the entire organization the embarrassment of going for broke . . . and coming up short. Can you imagine the teeth-gnashing and whimpering that would ensue if the Blackhawks went all-in for the 2009-2010 Stanley Cup and failed to win it? And then had to follow that failure with the summer dismantling? Niemi got it done when the big money guy disappeared. And Niemi is greedy? He saved you, Chicago fans, from a summer of excruciating and unbearable pain.

Stan Bowman has done the best he can given the bad situation he (sort of) inherited

You do hear this one a lot around Chicago, and people may believe it and it may be true to a large extent. But in late June, after Byfuglien, Eager, Ladd and Sopel had been disappeared, Stan Bowman told Chris Kuc of the Chicago Tribune that no further personnel moves would be necessary. “We’re fine,” he said, adding later in the story: “We’re going to be fine for salary-cap related things.” Hmmm. Salary-cap related things? Not a confidence-building choice of words, there, Stan. A few days later, Kris Versteeg was dealt. Then came the following from a Chris Kuc tweet: Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman on restricted free agents Antti Niemi and Niklas Hjalmarsson: ‘They’re not going anywhere.’” Just days after this, Hjalmarsson had signed an offer sheet from the Sharks, which the Hawks eventually matched. This, it’s said, sealed Niemi’s fate.

Now, I don’t doubt for a minute the organization intended to keep both of these youngsters, as I’ve heard both are regarded highly within the front office. But to make such a confident public declaration and then have to eat your words in such short order, well, you’re looking at a rather public initiation rite for the rookie GM. He spoke publicly and failed – FAILED - to deliver on his words. We haven’t witnessed such a self-induced pantsing since Roberto Luongo clumsily told Patrick Kane “I’ll see you in the playoffs” during handshakes after the gold medal Olympic game. No matter how hard he tried, Bowman got caught with his gums flapping, and his credibility, as a result, is already diminished just one year into his reign.

Niemi leaving is really just proof that the Bowmans really do believe you can win without committing to an elite netminder.

I love how the currency of this particular philosophy has risen lately. We’ll see how this pans out league-wide, as some observers seem to think Niemi somehow proves (or confirms what Chris Osgood proved) that you can win it all with an average goaltender. In reality, there’s nothing average about him. Niemi is the real deal, and I think the Hawks thought so too. Last year, it was immediately apparent Niemi was exceptionally quick and agile; his reflexes were above-average and his lower-body strength was dazzling. This offseason, the Hawks thought they could talk him into accepting what they could offer. And they were wrong.

Time will tell if he merits whatever deal his agent is able to wrangle for him. I believe he will prove to be no flash in the pan, but another in what’s becoming a long line of badass Finnish netminders. And at 2.75 million, he would have been a steal for the Hawks, if only they had allowed themselves the room to get it done. For the sake of comparison, Kari Lehtonen, the guy brought in to replace Turco in Dallas, is also a young Finn admired for his size and athleticism. He has a career playoff record of 0-2 with an accompanying playoff GAA of 5.59. His cap hit is $3.55 million.

I hope Marty Turco resurrects his career in Chicago and finds postseason glory with our gang of young guns and our aging sniper. But the word out of Dallas is that Turco had a tendency to give up soft goals at the most inopportune of times. We’ll soon see if that, indeed, is the case, and what kind of impact that might have on Chicago’s uptempo game, which relies on offensive-zone risk-taking by defenders, which is made easier by unflappable confidence in the guy behind your back. The Hawks had that with Niemi. Will they have it with Turco?

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