By Shawn Muller–
Antti Niemi will get his first crack at beating his former teammates from Chicago as the Blackhawks travel to San Jose to face off against the Sharks Wednesday night. Niemi, as Hawks fans remember, was magical between the pipes for Chicago in the playoffs last season and was an integral part of the Blackhawks machine that captured the franchise’s first Stanley Cup title since 1961. But with all pro sports (outside of pro baseball), salary cap issues can break up a budding dynasty before it can even get started. After a crazy off-season for the Blackhawks that saw the front office needing to trim salary due to cap constraints, Hawks fans knew that the 2010-2011 edition of Chicago hockey was going to look a little different in the team’s quest to repeat as NHL champions.
Don’t get me wrong. The Blackhawks are still loaded with top flight talent. They still have their core nucleus of superstars, with players such as Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Duncan Keith. But losing important role players in Dustin Byfuglien, Adam Burish, and John Madden (to name a few) has definitely hurt. In total, 8 members of the Stanley Cup title team ended up wearing a different sweater this year than that of the red and black of Chicago. Perhaps the biggest name Blackhawk fans were worried about not seeing on the Chicago bench this season was Antti Niemi. As Hawks fans remember, an NHL arbitrator ruled this past summer that Niemi should be awarded a salary of $2.7 million for one year, but with Chicago already struggling with the cap constraints, the Blackhawks decided to look elsewhere. Instead, Chicago ended up agreeing to a one-year deal with 3-time NHL All-star goaltender, Marty Turco. At the time, it seemed like Chicago was making a huge mistake in not finding a way to move money around to re-sign the Finnish goaltender Niemi. That was this past summer. I am not so sure the same can be said now (up to this point in the year).
While Turco has not been “lights out” this season in the net (he is 8-6 with a 2.83 GAA), he has not been horrible either. The same thing cannot be said for Antti Niemi. With a 2-4-1 record for the Sharks, Niemi is allowing just under 4 goals per contest, and his San Jose Sharks (the team Chicago swept in the Western Conference Finals last season with Niemi between the pipes) are sitting in 4th place in the Pacific Division. The Blackhawks too find themselves in 4th place in the Central Division, but can Hawks fans really say that loss of Niemi is the main reason for the slow start? With the NHL season in full swing, I cannot say that it was. Marty Turco is allowing a shade over one goal less than Niemi. That is a pretty big difference if you ask me. Why would the Hawks record be any better if it were Antti Niemi in goal rather than Marty Turco? If anything, the Hawks record could possibly be worse with the way Niemi has played in San Jose. Now don’t get me wrong. If it wasn’t for the play of Niemi in the playoffs last season, Chicago most likely would not have won their first title in 49 years, and for his play, every Hawks fans is eternally grateful. That was then….this is now.
Antti Niemi was not going to make or break this season for the Blackhawks if he stayed in Chicago, regardless of how Blackhawks fans felt during his contract talks over the summer. He was just one piece of the championship machine of last year’s squad…one piece. There were seven other pieces to the 2009-2010 Blackhawks that were just as important to hockey in the United Center as the man that signed with San Jose. And just like Niemi, those men are no longer suiting up for Chicago. Seven other players who had a part in making history last season are gone. Losing eight players to trades and free agency is a tough pill to swallow for any franchise, regardless of sport. Losing eight players of the quality the Blackhawks lost for this season, and any team would be wearily optimistic about the future. Do I think the Blackhawks can still make another run to the Stanley Cup title this season? I am not so sure. Only time will tell. One thing I do know, however, is that if Chicago doesn’t repeat as the champions of the hockey world this year, it will not be due simply because of the loss of Antti Niemi…I can name seven other reason as well.
Shawn Muller has lived in Chicago for 7 years. He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and just recently received his certificate in radio broadcasting in October of 2010. Sports have always been a passion of Shawn’s. In his free time, Shawn enjoys spending time with his wife Melissa and 3 year old daughter Ava, catching any live sporting event, and traveling. Check out his radio show, “Grab Some Bench with Muller and Bangser” at www.blogtalkradio.com/spmuller24.