Whether the Chicago Blackhawks are sailing on the wave of a winning streak or struggling as they have been of late, fans have many facets of the game with which to banter around the water cooler or bar. The conversation can weave around new faces, injuries, leadership, scoring, defense, heart, complacency, or even the schedule.
In the Windy City, the talk is eventually going to focus between the pipes.
Regardless of how you feel about the past, present, or future faces behind the mask, the time will come when we select the man to mind the net. The guy who can anchor the position year after year, become a fan favorite, and grow into a Chicago icon.
I've got some advice for that guy.
Bring your lunch. This is a tough place to work.
Lots Of Room At The Top
The Blackhawks have some storied names hanging from the rafters, but when you look for guys who've come into town and carried the load in net for extended periods, they're not growing on trees.
We all know the names at the top. But if you look for guys who have been the primary goalie for the Blackhawks for any length of time, you're going to find a lot of room in the clubhouse. Here's my top-ten list of Chicago goalies who was the starter for at least three seasons and logged 100 games:
1. Tony Esposito, 1970-1984, 873 games
2. Glenn Hall, 1958-1967, 618 games
3. Ed Belfour, 1989-1997, 415 games
4. Charlie Gardiner, 1928-1934, 316 games
5. Mike Karakas, 1936-46, 331 games
6. Jocelyn Thibault, 1999-2004, 321 games
7. Nikolai Khabibulin, 2006-2009, 202 games
8. Denis De Jordy, 1963-1970, 198 games
9. Al Rollins, 1953-1957, 308 games
10. Murray Bannerman, 1981-1987, 288 games
Those are the guys. 84 years of history, ten guys lasted three seasons or more as the starter.
I could discuss the merits of the top three, Espisito's incredible first five years in town, and Belfour's and Hall's success with other teams. Someday, I will. But what's important right now is that after the top three or four guys, there's kind of a drop off.
Only a select few guys are going to make the cut and hang with the Hawks long enough to even join the Murray Bannermans of the world. It may never happen, thanks to the salary cap and free agency.
Plus, the guy in net has got to deal with our expectations. Go ask Cristobal Huet how fun that is.
High Contracts, Low Yields
Huet is probably crying all the way to a Swiss bank (he is within walking distance these days). Our previous plan of attack was to nab a hot playoff goalie and throw a ton of money at him. Khabibulin was the hired gun brought in after the lockout who failed to live up to expectations. That is, until we brought in an even more expensive guy (Huet) to play alongside him.
I'm not going to rehash last season's roller coaster ride with Huet and Niemi. Bottom line, it had to be Niemi in goal because I don't think anyone in the Blackhawks organization had a lick of confidence in Huet (including Huet).
Assuming that Chicago will likely bury Huet overseas until his contract runs out, someone has to mind the net next year. We have two expiring contracts in goal this year. Let's go over our options.
The Rockford Option: "There's young talent down I-90 that will save the day."
This option is not an option.
I've seen both Alec Richards and Hannu Toivonen in net for the Ice Hogs. Two other teams gave up on Toivonen for good reason. Richards, who has been the better of the two, still needs a lot of development time and has to learn to stop AHL shots before you even think of bringing him up. Their combined save percentage in Rockford is .876.
The Brave New World Option: "Corey Crawford is ready for his shot."
Crawford has shown that he still has the potential to be a steady NHL goalie. Don't let the won-loss record fool you. He's played pretty well when he's gotten the chance.
But is he the next Ed Belfour...or the next Jeff Hackett? If he's Hackett incarnate, you have a steady NHL backup who could hang around for eight or ten years and put up decent numbers. Nothing wrong with that.
The unknown is whether Crawford has it in him to become a goalie you can pencil into 60 games a season year after year. There are some who say that it's too late for Crawford since he's already 25. I don't buy that. When Esposito was 25, he played just 13 games for the Canadians before coming to Chicago the next season.
The Booty Call Option: "Let's just bring Niemi back! We miss him so!"
The Antti Niemi saga will always be remembered fondly in Chicago. He was an important contributor to the Stanley Cup squad and should never pay for a drink or a meal in this town again.
However, he's gone and he isn't coming back.
Niemi is giving up nearly four goals a contest in San Jose. His save percentage is .872. I don't think his poor start this season is any more indicative of his abilities than his numbers behind the world champions last spring. Niemi is a quality backup goalie who can start for some teams. No more, no less.
He was the right guy at the right time for the Blackhawks, but that moment is over. Pin the blame on the cap, Stan Bowman, Niemi's greedy agent, or whomever you wish. The bottom line is that he's not in goal for us. I wish him the best of luck and hope he gets the starting job back with the Sharks.
The Status Quo Option: "Let's get off Turco's back for things he can't control."
Marty Turco is the last person anyone should be blaming for:
A. The Hawks poor performance of late.
B. Niemi leaving town.
When we were in full panic mode last spring and wondering who was going to wind up in net for the playoffs, the Dallas Stars announced that they would not be bringing back Turco. At the time, I thought, "Wow, I wouldn't mind having a guy like that on our roster right now."
And I don't mind having Turco on our roster right now.
I know that there are fans out there who see Turco as a carpetbagger who should be reviled for deposing the beloved Niemi. I don't see it.
I'm not claiming that Turco is the second coming of Patrick Roy, or that he ever was. I just know this:
1. His career numbers (.911 Save percentage, 2.32 GAA) are better than Niemi's (.905, 2.47). And he's played over 500 games. Some with teams that didn't win the Stanley Cup. Playoff numbers? Turco: .914, 2.17, Niemi: .910, 2.63.
2. All he's done is gone out and given us a chance to win nearly every night (including last night against Phoenix).
3. He's been a team guy and hasn't been afraid to lend some veteran presence to the Hawks.
4. He's doing this for about 4.3 million dollars less than the guy who was chased to Europe.
Marty Turco isn't Antti Niemi. His style of play is different. He didn't run anyone out of town. He isn't robbing the organization. He didn't set the salary cap. He just works here.
For how long...well, that's yet to be determined...
Addressing the future
No matter how you slice it, the goalie position needs attention because Turco signed a one-year deal and Crawford is an RFA next summer.
How does Stan Bowman decide to roll on this issue? My thoughts:
We've been burned by hefty free agent signings at goalie twice now. The league seems to be moving away from throwing buckets of cash at the hot hand each spring. This summer, as Niemi found out, was a buyer's market. I think next summer will be one as well.
With that in mind, the Hawks can wait for the right guy to come to them at two or three million per year. Or, they could offer Turco another one-year deal for two million or so, sign Crawford for two or three seasons with a modest raise and try and ease him into the starter's role.
Whether Chicago splurges on a new savior in goal, or anoints one from inside the organization, there will be pressure from Hawk fans that the next long-term net minder will have to shoulder.
Hey, in this town, it's just part of the job.