Antti Niemi was 26-7-4 for the Blackhawks last season. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
For the most part, I think the impact the moves Chicago has been forced to make this off-season has been over-analyzed and that when the puck drops again in October the Blackhawks will continue to be a dominant team in the Western Conference.
They haven’t yet lost a major player up front (Patrick Sharp, Dave Bolland and Marian Hossa were all mentioned at least once in rumors) and their defense corps remains largely intact. Where the real impact will be felt is in the post-season, where guys like the departed Dustin Byfuglien, Adam Burish, Andrew Ladd and Ben Eager can swing a tight, short series.
But those guys are at least replaceable. The Hawks have time to find their new heart and soul players before it starts to bite them – at this point, there is little reason to believe they will fall at all, let alone precipitously.
Everyone the Hawks have lost this off-season (except maybe Kris Versteeg, who they got a serviceable and projectable NHLer for) are bit players; guys who fill a certain role outside of the crucial, star-studded spotlight. The Kanes, Toews’ and Keiths – you know, the types of players who turned the franchise around – are still in Chicago and when you have front line guys like that, plus Hossa, Bolland, Sharp, Seabrook, Hjalmarsson and Campbell to support them, you won’t have trouble putting W’s on the board (Yyyyyees!).
But how much impact will the loss of Antti Niemi have on the team?
As the goalie landscape in the NHL changes, it is making less and less sense to tie up tender in your ‘tender. Is Niemi worth $2.75 million per season? Not if you’re fighting the salary cap like the Hawks and not after one-half of a good season.
To be an NHL goalie, you have to be able to steal a game here and there. Niemi did just that at a couple crucial junctures in the playoffs: a 33-save Game 4 performance against Nashville; two 40-plus save performances against San Jose; and a tight, 32-save win in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup final.
But what really stuck out at me was how Niemi would still win games he had no business winning. The Finnish netminder was 5-1-2 in regular season games where he let in four goals or more. Now, your first thought would naturally be to credit the potent Chicago offense for those wins – and rightfully so – but Niemi’s numbers in these subpar games stack up favorably against all the other goalies who you would assume would benefit from being on a strong scoring team:
Niemi, Chicago – 5-1-2, .857 SP
Jose Theodore, Washington – 3-3-4, .848 SP
Marc-Andre Fleury, Pittsburgh – 3-10-1, .857 SP
Evgeni Nabokov, San Jose – 2-12-4, .844 SP
Roberto Luongo, Vancouver – 1-10-1, .817 SP
And it’s worth mentioning the other Chicago goalie, Cristobal Huet, was 1-5-1 with an .810 SP.
Of course, if you’re the best of the best, you don’t have many off nights like these. Vezina winner Ryan Miller had only seven games in which he allowed four goals or more, but went 0-6-1 with an .854 SP.
Niemi’s replacement in Chicago, Marty Turco, didn’t have the kind of goal support in Dallas these other netminders had on their teams and as a result he went 1-12-2 in these situations with an .846 SP that seems to be the norm.
The difference between Chicago making the playoffs and missing out wasn’t Niemi. Even though Turco has fallen off considerably from his pedestal, his 2009-10 save percentage was still comparable to Niemi’s. Turco isn’t incompetent and if Theodore can lead the Caps to first place in the East with ease, I have a hard time agreeing with an argument that states the Hawks won’t win with Turco. It’s a different kind of goalie environment we’re not used to; one in which a Stanley Cup winner has a hard time finding a job, but Antero Niittymaki is snapped up on July 1.
While you measure the value of a goalie by how many games he steals and how often he keeps you in a contest, this “blowup” stat is nonetheless interesting. Sure Niemi wasn’t the reason the Hawks won those games, but it shows he didn’t let in a momentum-shifting goal in those already high-scoring matchups.
It’s not a stat you would look to when deciding which goalie to sign and run with, but seeing how Niemi’s 5-1-2 record in these situations is an uncanny anomaly, it’s hard not to notice and it will cost the Hawks at least a couple of W’s in 2010-11.
While the Blackhawks still haven’t been knocked down, the Niemi-for-Turco exchange is the first move that will impact their regular season.
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