Monday, Aug. 2, 2010
By Chris Boden
The last big question hanging over the Blackhawks' roster this off-season has been answered. If that answer was Antti Niemi returning, we'd know who be in the nets for their Cup defense. Stan Bowman said after signing Marty Turco that the 35-year-old, three-time All-Star is that answer now, with Corey Crawford designated for backup duty.
What we do know about Turco is this: He's a wonderful guy, great in the locker room and the community, and he wants to help the city of Chicago and the Hawks defend the Cup, and the jewel to top what's been a solid career. It says a lot that he'd pass up more money and more security playing for a pretty decent team in Philadelphia to accept a one-year deal at a pay cut of about 4 million.
We talked with Darren Pang at Denis Savard's Celebrity Golf Outing for his Foundation Monday about Turco, and he called him among the top three puck-handling goalies in history, alongside Marty Brodeur and Ron Hextall. That'll work well with the Hawks' skating, stick-handling, active defensive corps, and maybe that's just what Turco needs at this stage after playing the last couple of seasons with a Dallas team that ranked 25th defensively in '08-'09, and 23rd last season. How much did the lack of stars on that Stars blueline have to do with Turco's career-high goals-against averages of 2.81 and 2.72? His save percentage was a Niemi-like .913 this past season, which was his best since four stellar pre-lockout years, when his highest goals-against was 2.09.
All signs point to Turco's career already having peaked, but for a guy who took such a hit in the wallet, he sure sounded rejuvenated when talking with the media from a golf vacation at St. Andrews, Scotland. Hawks fans (and most hockey fans, for that matter) are all too familiar with The Goalie Debate - their post-lockout importance now in the world of the Cap, not to mention the inexperience we saw in the Cup Finals, while the Brodeurs, Millers and Bryzgalovs went home quickly. As recently as coming out of the Olympic break, there were still arguments over whether Niemi or Huet should be the guy for the playoffs.
Niemi won that battle, then went out and helped them win a Cup, and that's something doubters of this decision have a tough time grasping in seeing him go. In the end, no matter the impression we got from his shy, reserved demeanor as he'd occasionally struggle with understanding or responding to our questions, Niemi's gone through the unique journey of being a Cup-winning goalie. And there weren't many who expected that from a guy with 42 games of NHL experience heading into the playoffs, which also raised his value.
The debate now becomes not only if TurcoCrawford will be better than Niemi, but how much more upside there is to the Finn. And how much is that worth with the team the Hawks have, considering he'd be a seemingly more expensive unrestricted free agent a year from now? Stan and Scotty Bowman and the rest of the Hawks' decision-makers believe this alternative gives them a better shot right now, providing more flexibility and balance for the rest of the roster. It'll be interesting to watch where Niemi goes, and how much he'll receive. Stan certainly did his due diligence checking out interest for Niemi in case he accepted the arbitration award while seeking to trade him for at least some draft picks. Whomever might've been interested wasn't about to do him any favors if they could get Niemi without sacrificing anything.
We're now a month into free agency, and there are still plenty of solid veterans still out there without a job, having to accept a lower salary than they may have originally envisioned. Maybe the Hawks go out and get one or two of them, especially another veteran for the blueline in front of Turco. Guys like John Madden are still out there, looking (though represented by Bill Zito, who also happens to be Niemi's agent).
The dust appears to have now settled, and there were plenty of pieces to that Cup-winning team scattered about. You look around the West, and see Vancouver made two nice moves to bolster their defense. You see a talented new goalie in St. Louis, Lombardi in Nashville, Ponikarovsky in L.A., San Jose exchanging Nabokov for Niittymaki and still seeking a replacement for Rob Blake. Calgary went back to its recent, unproductive past with its roster. No noteworthy improvements in Phoenix or Colorado, either. A healthy Detroit still seems like the biggest obstacle. There's been a lot of standing pat, or hoping for improvement from within, as the Blackhawks now will with the replacements they'll rely upon. I get the sense after all the heavy lifting Hawks management had to do the past five or six weeks, they look around and see the same. There is no question the quest to repeat will be loads more difficult. The recent history of Cup winners doesn't bode well. But if they remain healthy and hungry enough with their fresh young faces, after all this, they'll be a strong force in the West again.