Reporting Dan Bernstein
It can be dangerous to draw conclusions based on small sample sizes, particularly in the early portion of a season.
With that in mind, I still think the Blackhawks and GM Stan Bowman look pretty good for deciding as they did on their goaltender for 2010-11.
The summer madness of the Stanley Cup celebration quickly morphed into the chill of hard-cap reality months ago, with Antti Niemi awarded $2.75 million by an arbitrator. After negotiations between Bowman and agent Bill Zito cratered, the Hawks exercised their right to walk away.
35-year-old Marty Turco was signed quickly from Dallas for $1.3 million, and Niemi eventually signed for $2 million with San Jose.
Predictably, bewildered fans and media were astonished that a cup-winning goalie could be so easily dismissed, apparently unaware of the general valuation of the position in the Bowman business model.
Hockey old-schoolers love to say that goalie is “the most important position in team sports.” And while that may be argued, modern execs increasingly feel that it is not worth paying big dollars for small differences between players to fill that position. Bowman’s father, Scotty, believed that when he was winning titles in Detroit, and cap constraints can force actions pursuant to those ideas.
Their shared philosophy includes airtight defense and a puck-possession game that limits opponents’ opportunities to score. They rely on forwards contributing to the defensive effort.
Last season, Niemi inherited the job after the highly-paid Cristobal Huet crumbled. The Hawks allowed a meager 25.1 shots per game against them — leading the league in that category by nearly two full shots – and Niemi was solid enough.
Now, let’s look at where things stand today, eleven games into the season.
Marty Turco, though facing a surprising average of 34 shots each night, has a goals against average of 2.44 and is stopping shots at a .927 clip. Niemi has been benched by San Jose after posting league-worst numbers of 4.49 goals against and .854 SP in four starts. He was pulled Sunday halfway through the first period after allowing three goals in five shots, and has been replaced by fellow Finn Antero Niittymaki.
It is probable that these numbers will regress to the mean as the season grinds on (and if Niemi regains the job). But even this early, it may help some grumbling disbelievers understand that the aura of the NHL goalie’s importance – even for one with a championship ring – can be trumped by dollars and good business sense.