The Hawks took three out of four points over the weekend and are now back in the States. Like a very good hockey team the boys bounced back after a loss. Although they played well in the season opener their last effort was a masterpiece. For the first time since the playoffs the Hawks looked like the team which eliminated both Calgary and Vancouver.
When Joel Quenneville’s group is firing on all cylinders they come after their opponents in waves. Speed, speed and more speed is the battle cry. What also comes with their up tempo package is some great passing and all four lines contributing to success. The Hawks overwhelmed the Panthers even though they could have been the more tired team.
The Panthers most called upon players in the opener did not log as much playing time as the on ice leaders for the Hawks. In game two Coach Q. spread the work load around and everyone did their part. When the fourth liners all play about 9:00 minutes and are as entertaining as the other three lines, good things result for the Hawks. It is a great asset to have depth and in the NHL that is often the determining factor for success.
Antti Niemi had a nice homecoming and pitched a shutout. It will be easier for the Cristobal Huet bashers to call for his exile when Niemi plays well. In reality Niemi had a good game but was only strongly tested a few times. The Hawks total defense was so sound it really didn’t matter much who was in goal.
Due to the condensed schedule with the Olympic break and because the Blackhawks will have 19 back-to-back games this season, having a reliable back-up goalie is a must. As Ed Olczyk reported over the weekend, Cristobal Huet is a weak 6-18 in back-to-back appearances, so his partner will probably be called upon often.
The real reason why Niemi was chosen to remain in Chicago while Corey Crawford was returned to the Ice Hogs has been reported. The business side of hockey is so important in the salary cap era. This is not a slight to Blackhawk management because this club has come along way in a relatively short time. But Niemi-Crawford roster decision wasn’t made on training camp performance alone and that is often the way it is in today’s NHL, especially with the stronger clubs.
This goalie decision had nothing to do with salary cap space but rather took into consideration the risk of losing Niemi on re-entry waivers later in the year.
I have yet to talk to anyone who watched all of training camp which thought Niemi was clearly better than Crawford. The same conclusion seems to have been reached by Hawk GM Stan Bowman. He said recently the reason to keep Niemi over Crawford was mostly based on business rather than performance. By the way the latest Hawks podcast is a real good one. Bowman answers some difficult questions in a straight forward fashion. That Hawk cast is available on Chicago Blackhawks.com.
Management’s logic appears to follow the theory there was little chance of Crawford getting claimed off waivers right after camp ended. He earns $750,000 a season and is on a two year contract. It is great for him to have a two year deal in place, but he was in a tough spot to make the roster out of camp. Maybe that is why he was able to negotiate more than a one year contract in the summer.
Because of collective bargaining agreement particulars Crawford would not be subject to re-entry waivers if he was brought back up to play in Chicago. Niemi on the hand is subject to re-entry waivers, and is on a one year contract. I thought from the beginning Niemi would stay because he was only signed to a one year deal, but that was only a small part of the story.
Niemi would be more likely to get claimed off waivers if the Hawks were to bring him up later on because he is on a one year contract. He would be more affordable for another club to claim and the Hawks could be left exposed if there was an injury to Huet or Crawford.
Crawford’s arrival in Chicago could happen this season but only because of Niemi’s failure to perform or an injury to either goalie.
If Niemi doesn’t do well the Hawks will send him down to Rockford. Crawford can be brought up without the risk of losing him to a waiver claim. Once again, due to the nature of his contract Crawford is not subject to re-entry waivers and that is key. This would insure the Hawks won’t be caught short handed.
In essence Niemi could be claimed on re-entry waivers by any team with a little cap space, and the Hawks would be in a difficult position. It is not far fetched to think a playoff competitor would claim Niemi knowing he is only on a one year contract and realizing his loss would hurt the Hawks.
So unless Niemi was a complete disaster in training camp he was going to start the year in Chicago. From what I have heard Niemi would have to clear waivers to be sent down to Rockford, which could lead to a dicey situation. Most likely if he doesn’t perform well enough to stay in Chicago other clubs won’t be interested in his services. At least at that time the Hawks could prepare by bringing another goalie on the scene. They would not be forced to do anything in a panic as Crawford will be waiting in the wings.
What training camp may have proven to management is that both goalies could handle a NHL work load someday. If so the Hawks will have to make a decision for next year.
For all those ready to anoint Niemi the next Tony Esposito after his shutout performance, it might be best to wait a bit. I won’t sell the young Finn short because he could be a NHL star someday.
It should be realized Niemi didn’t play at the highest level in Sweden, in their Elite League. He was also not highly sought after at a younger age by teams who routinely scout Europe looking for talented players. A San Jose scouting mission awhile back snagged two top net minders in Miika Kiprusoff and Evegni Nabokov. The Red Wings and others make a habit of uncovering hidden treasures abroad and maybe this time the Hawks have struck gold.
Niemi could be a future NHL starter but it is way too early tell. When I first saw him in prospect camp last year he looked super. When last season began his performance in Rockford was average, and then he hit a slump only to finish nicely. When Niemi was brought up to Chicago last year he had poor rebound control. It is too early to tell if he has improved a great deal.
For the anti Huet crew which dwells on the fact many goals are scored high on him…. that is the way it will be. It is more of a question of how many goals will be scored against him in total rather than where they hit the net.
As I recall Tony Eposito had many goals scored high on him and he is in the Hall of Fame.
When a goalie plays a butterfly style he commits to blocking the bottom 2/3 of the net. Yes they get in trouble when they are out of position or by dropping down too early. But when any butterfly style goalie is scored on, it is often up high. Tony O. has said, if you force a shooter to aim high they can miss the net with no chance to score. If the shooter is skillful enough to place pucks just over the shoulder of a net minder he is going to score. The same can be said no matter what style goal keeper is playing. It is also should be realized when Huet is screened and he feels a shot is coming, he probably will drop down.
What could frustrate Hawk fans more than anything else about Huet’s style, is he isn’t reactive but is more of a shot blocker. He relies a lot on positioning and simply let’s the puck hit him. I feel one of the reasons fans jump on him after a goal is because at times he appears statue like. Huet looks worse than many goalies when beaten, but that is because of his style of play.
The most important factors for Hawk fans to consider are how many total goals are scored against Huet and how many times he wins. So far his record in those categories has been good.
Niemi could be the real deal but to succeed the Hawks will need a combined effort from both.
Next time I will discuss the Jack Skille roster decision and what the NHL could have down instead of playing overseas.
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