Chicago Blackhawks Goalie Issue: A Reality Check

Tab BamfordSenior Writer IJuly 22, 2010

PHILADELPHIA - JUNE 09:  Antti Niemi #31 of the Chicago Blackhawks hoists the Stanley Cup after the Blackhawks defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-3 in overtime to win the Stanley Cup in Game Six of the 2010 NHL Stanley Cup Final at the Wachovia Center on June 9, 2010 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

This article is a response to stupidity .

There has been a great deal of discussion all over the Internet about the salary cap issues facing the Chicago Blackhawks in the wake of their Stanley Cup victory.

So far, a handful of popular players from the championship team that celebrated with a parade in front of an estimated two million people in the streets of Chicago are already gone.

Dustin Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg, Andrew Ladd, Ben Eager, Brent Sopel, and Colin Fraser are just a few of the names that will be in new places (mostly Atlanta) this fall.

One name that remains "to be determined" is rookie netminder Antti Niemi, who was good enough to be between the pipes when Patrick Kane scored the Cup-clinching goal in overtime in Philadelphia.

Read that last statement again. Niemi was "good enough."

His .912 postseason save percentage tied Carey Price for 19th in the NHL this spring. In eight of 22 postseason games, Niemi allowed at least four goals.

Was Niemi special on occasion? Absolutely. In a handful of key situations, Niemi was personally responsible for the Blackhawks being in a game.

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On the flip side of the reality, Niemi was equally responsible for Blackhawks opponents being in games on a number of occasions as well.

So when Jaroslav Halak received a four-year deal from the St. Louis Blues with an annual cap number of $3.75 million, Niemi's agent, Bill Zito, respectfully believed that his client was worth at least somewhere in the neighborhood of that number, if not above it because of the jewelry on his resume.

After 42 career regular seasons games.

Here's a reality check for Zito and Blackhawks fans that think the world is imploding: No player is worth blowing up the core of a franchise, certainly not a 27-year-old netminder with one magical season under his belt.

The Blackhawks will do everything they can to get Niemi under contract before his arbitration hearing, which is scheduled for July 29. But the reality of the matter is that the Blackhawks only have roughly $2 million to spend on a starting netminder, or approximately half of what Zito is asking for his client.

So where will the Hawks turn for help? They have options on a deep free-agent market.

One of those options will not be Nikolai Khabibulin. Even the thought is laughable, and should be reserved for the midnight time slot on Comedy Central where that sort of language can be said without a "bleep."

A hockey fan with any concept of reality knows that goalies are like closers in baseball; some get hot, and then want to get paid because the lifespan of their career on top is usually shorter than an Illinois' governor's term out of jail. Ask Cam Ward how the whole post-Cup part of the last decade has treated him in Carolina.

When evaluating options, fans and analysts with any kind of a clue also realize that the goals against average of a netminder is like the batting average of a baseball player; it tells part of the story, but leaves 99 percent of reality on the table.

Two perfect examples of this are free-agent goalies Marty Turco and Jose Theodore.

In 2009-10, Niemi had a 2.25 goals against average. Turco's GAA was 2.72, and Theodore's was 2.81. On the surface, it looks like Niemi blows these two veteran goalies out of the water.

But step back for a moment. Theodore saved 91.1 percent of the shots he faced. Niemi saved 91.2. Turco saved 91.3. the real world (where Khabibulin is going to jail for a DUI), if a goalie playing behind an elite defensive group in Chicago faces 25.1 shots per game (best in the NHL) saves the same percentage of shots as the guy in Washington who faces 30.9 (18th in the NHL) or the guy that faced 31.2 shots per game in Dallas (19th in the NHL), he's going to have a better goals against average just based on simple math.

Now numbers cannot, and do not, capture the special factor.

Niemi had "it" in the 2009-10 postseason. You can ask any number of Vancouver Canucks, San Jose Sharks and Philadelphia Flyers (Jeff Carter?) that were robbed by Niemi if he was able to get himself into the right place at the right time, and they'll all cry in a beer.

However, a very real consolation for Blackhawks fans is looking back at the Finals at the other end of the ice. Nobody is worried about Michael Leighton getting paid $4 million, and yet he had a better regular season save percentage (.918) than Niemi did and had better gross numbers in the postseason.

Leighton was good enough to get the Flyers all the way to the Finals, where the Blackhawks depth proved to be too much for the Philadelphia squad to handle.

There it is again...that phrase "good enough."

Meanwhile, Leighton will make $3.1 million over the next two seasons. Not per season, but total for the two; his cap number will be $1.55M.

As July 29 approaches, and Zito's confidence in a bloated goalie market that has already sent Evgeni Nabokov and Manny Legace to Russia this summer continues to grow stale on Chicago's West Side, Blackhawks fans can share a moment of pause and remember that if only takes a goalie that's "good enough" to get to the promised land.

Just ask Chris Osgood.

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