Shortly after I arrived in the newsroom Monday, I asked my colleague D.J. Wanberg if he was in full meltdown mode after hearing the news that the Hawks were saying goodbye to their Stanley Cup-winning goaltender, Antti Niemi.
"Not at all," D.J. said. "I think it's the newer Hawks fans who are upset by all this."
Like myself, D.J. is a long-time Hawks fans and a long-time observer of the NHL. It sucks that the Hawks were unable to retain Niemi, but I don't think anyone with good hockey knowledge is shocked or unnerved by this turn of events. Everyone knew the Hawks were in salary cap hell and that some good players were going to have to go -- except for the casual fans, of course. Those are the folks howling at the moon right now.
Niemi and the Hawks went to arbitration last week. The Hawks wanted to give the goalie a salary in the range of $1.5 million. Niemi reportedly asked for $4 million. The arbitrator split the difference, giving Niemi a judgment for $2.75 million.
That left the Hawks with three options: 1) They could have kept Niemi on the roster at that salary. 2) They could have accepted the ruling, then traded Niemi to another team. 3) They could renounce their rights to Niemi and allow him to become an unrestricted free agent.
The Hawks chose option three and signed veteran goalie Marty Turco (pictured) to a one-year deal that is reportedly worth $1.3 million. With the signing, the Hawks save nearly $1.5 million and they have a goaltender who is of similar quality.
Turco, a nine-year veteran, has made the All-Star team three times as a member of the Dallas Stars. I always figure save percentage is the best stat in evaluating a goaltender. Turco's save percentage last season was .913. Niemi's was .912. Both are good goalies. As it turns out, Turco fits into the Hawks' salary structure better for this upcoming year.
Really, Hawks GM Stan Bowman has done a solid job of untangling this mess. He's kept the core of the team together, with Niemi being the most painful loss of the offseason. Still, a suitable replacement was signed immediately. In addition, Bowman was able to get useful players in return for the players he traded earlier in the offseason.
If there is one criticism I could make of Bowman it would be this: He should have been more proactive in getting defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson under contract. The Swedish blue-liner is clearly a core player and an important piece of the puzzle over the long haul. Instead of getting Hjalmarsson taken care of quickly, Bowman left the door open for the San Jose Sharks to swoop in and offer a four-year, $14 million contract to the restricted free agent.
The Sharks designed that offer to make it difficult for the Hawks to match given their cap situation. That created a scenario where Bowman had to pick between Hjalmarsson and Niemi. That's a no-brainer ... you take Hjalmarsson. The Hawks matched the San Jose offer sheet, and now Hjalmarsson is back with team, while Niemi is gone.
Even with Hjalmarsson on board, the Hawks still could have agreed to take Niemi at a salary of $2.75 million. But under that scenario they would have had to trade either versatile forward Patrick Sharp or defensive ace Dave Bolland. Sharp or Niemi? That's a no-brainer ... you take Sharp. Bolland or Niemi? Again, a no-brainer ... you take Bolland.
As we've seen over the last decade, you don't need an elite goaltender to win a Stanley Cup. You just need a guy who is decent, maybe a bit above average. The Detroit Red Wings won multiple Cups with the decidedly average Chris Osgood. The Carolina Hurricanes won with Cam Ward, for cripes sake. Niemi is a good goalie, but would anyone consider him to be among the elite of the league? Probably not.
That's why you keep Hjalmarsson, Sharp, Bolland, et al., and take your chances with a cheaper goalie. Like Niemi, Turco is good, but not considered among the elite of the league. The Hawks won with Niemi. They can win with Turco, too.