For at least the next few months there will be parts of the Blackhawks' fanbase that argue about whether or not the Hawks made the right decision when they countered San Jose’s offer sheet for Niklas Hjalmarsson, ultimately costing the team goalie Antti Niemi.
The Sharks made a calculated attack at their already-handicapped rival, and appear to have successfully forced Chicago’s hand. However, a more in-depth review of the situation reveals that the Blackhawks made the appropriate decision when selecting the 23-year-old defenseman over their netminder.
First, consider the strengths of this Blackhawks' roster. They led the NHL last year, allowing the fewest shots on goal per game (25.1) in the league. A big part of this statistic was the aggressive willingness of the Hawks' defensemen to blocks shots before they reached the goalie. However, the Blackhawks ranked just 17th in the NHL in team blocked shots last year, a surprisingly low number.
By keeping Hjalmarsson on the roster, the Blackhawks return their top three shot blockers (Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook were the top two; Brian Campbell was fifth).
Also consider that the Blackhawks' penalty killing unit was elite last year, and Hjalmarsson was a big part of that effort. With Brent Sopel traded and John Madden presumably leaving via free agency, losing Hjalmarsson would mean the Hawks would be without three of their top five primary penalty killers; keeping Hjalmarsson, however, maintains the core group of defensemen.
The expectation will be that he sees more time killing penalties now, and that he continues to provide excellent coverage on this unit. So we’ve established that Hjalmarsson is a key part of the skaters in front of the net. But did the Hawks overpay by matching the Sharks’ offer sheet?
There was a fairly deep pool of defensemen on the market this year, and evaluating the group of available blue liners shows that the Blackhawks paid a reasonable price for Hjalmarsson. Including Anaheim’s addition of Andy Sutton on Monday afternoon, the top 16 defensemen in this year’s free agent class averaged contracts of 3.1 years and $3.138M per season.
The group used to determine this average ranges from Sergei Gonchar, Dan Hamhuis and Paul Martin on the high side to Kurtis Foster, Brett Lebda and Brett Clark on the shallow side. Considering age, performance, and expectations, the Blackhawks paid a fair market value for Hjalmarsson.
On the other side of the coin, Niemi’s demands and arbitration award have not only priced him out of Chicago, but could put the 27-year-old and agent Bill Zito in a tough spot looking for work in North America.
Niemi had an exceptional rookie season in the NHL. He ended the regular season ranked fourth in the league with a 2.25 goals against average, but his fairly pedestrian .912 save percentage ranked just 20th in the NHL. In the postseason, Niemi’s numbers came back to the pack as he allowed 2.63 goals per game with a similar .910 save percentage.
The Blackhawks allowed considerably more shots per game (29.3) than they did for Niemi during the regular season (24.0). That is as much a function of consistently better competition and facing the same opponent in a series rather than an individual game or two as it is the Hawks' blue line being banged up in mid-April.
What matters, of course, is that Niemi started in net 22 times in the postseason and won 16 of those contests. Perhaps the first major flaw in the approach of Niemi’s camp was pushing the deal to arbitration. Zito clearly doesn’t know his Bowman Family History.
Simply looking back at the career of GM Stan Bowman’s father, Scotty, as a head coach and member of management over the years reveals that he has always held the five skaters moving up and down the ice in higher regard than the gentleman in the crease; defense(men) win championships, not goalies.
Anyone paying attention to Stan’s early decisions as a General Manager in Chicago sees that his face isn’t the only thing that looks a lot like his old man; Stan has shown a very smooth handle of the salary cap as well as a special eye for talent and the ability to get maximum value in return for assets.
Beyond the Bowman philosophy, the bigger question is whether or not Niemi was (or is) worth what his agent was asking from the Blackhawks. If we again turn our attention to the market this summer, we’ll see that Zito clearly misjudged his position.
ESPN’s EJ Hradek voiced his opinion well on Monday. "But clearly, the cap crunch in Chicago made the circumstances anything but normal. After watching several championship teammates get shipped to various parts of North America, Niemi and Zito had to have known the Hawks were seriously up against it. They had to know what the contractual limitations were going to be. They also had to know that the market for goaltenders had dried up pretty quickly in July.
"So much so, that Sharks veteran Evgeni Nabokov bolted for the KHL and ex-Stars G Marty Turco remained unsigned through July. With that information, Niemi (and Zito) had to decide whether or not he wanted to stay in Chicago at a reduced rate/term (Turco got only one year at $1.3 million) or go to arbitration with the strong possibility that the club would walk away and make him an unrestricted free agent.
"Again, the unusual circumstances make this a tough call. If Zito had/has a deal with another club in his back pocket (if so, expect Niemi to sign somewhere else very soon), the decision to go to arbitration makes perfect sense. If not, there’s more risk involved."
As Hradek mentions, the goalie market this summer was bloated in relation to the number of available positions; when guys like Nabokov and Manny Legace are going overseas in mid-July, the demand for goalies is clearly smaller than the supply.
Looking at five comparable goalies that have received new deals this summer, it becomes clear that Zito was out of his mind to expect $2.75M, much less than the reported $4M he asked for in arbitration. An average of the top five goalies to get a new deal this summer (Jaroslav Halak, Dan Ellis, Antero Nittymaki, Chris Mason, and Michael Leighton) reveals an average cap number of only $2.13M; if you remove Halak’s four-year commitment from St. Louis, the number drops to only $1.725M, over a full million dollars less than the arbitrator awarded Niemi.
Of those five goalies, all of them except Halak received two-year deals. What that means is that Philadelphia had agreed to pay their Stanley Cup goaltender, Leighton, only $305k more than Niemi in two years instead of only one for Niemi. Zito priced himself completely out of the market. As we’ve already discussed, there is now an issue for Zito to explain to his client: there isn’t a team with enough cap space to even offer Niemi his arbitration value.
All 19 of the teams that currently have over $3M in available cap space have two goalies under contract for next season, and Philadelphia GM Paul Holmgren went on record removing the Flyers from the conversation already on Monday evening. Hradek even speculates that Niemi might end up back in Europe in 2010-11, just a few short months after lifting the Stanley Cup above his head.
On the other end of the spectrum, the addition or Turco looks even better relative to the market. Without even factoring that Turco is taking a $4.1M paycut to come to Chicago and reportedly turned down a multi-year deal from the Flyers for considerably more money than the $1.3M he’ll make with the Hawks, Turco signed below the cap numbers of Leighton, Nittymaki and even Mason.
Indeed, the Blackhawks will skate two goalies and three forwards for less money than the Blues are paying Halak this season. Just as the Hawks did last year when they convinced John Madden to buy into something special on the West Side by taking a substantial paycut, they have again struck a fantastic deal with one of Madden’s teammates from the University of Michigan in Turco.
Will Turco become a postseason hero as Niemi did last year? Or will he serve as an inexpensive mentor to the next young star to emerge between the pipes in Chicago, Corey Crawford?
We’re at least 82 games away from knowing what the future holds for the 2010-11 Blackhawks. However, looking at the Hawks’ strengths as a team and the marketplace for defensemen and goalies this summer, it’s obvious that the Hawks made the right choice in selecting Hjalmarsson over Niemi.