It seems possible. Hardly a week goes by when the questions about the Hawks goaltending being ‘good enough’ or ‘an Achilles’ heel’—among other descriptions—aren’t raised.
The loudest skepticism comes, surprisingly, not from opponents, but from very vocal Hawks writers and fans. No matter how many games the team wins, the losses and ‘soft goals’ are endlessly discussed and dissected.
Perhaps only the Montreal press and fan base subject their netminders to more ruthless scrutiny.
The expectations being what they are for a Chicago franchise that shows so much promise after almost fifty years since the last Stanley Cup Championship, one can understand the level of anticipation and emotion.
That emotion is stoked by the flow of rumors, and amplified by the actions of Hawks management. At the beginning of last season, former Hawks GM Dale Tallon, having signed free agent Cristobal Huet to a rich $5.625 million annual contract, turned around and tried unsuccessfully to waive Nikolai Khabibulin, who he had signed to an even richer $6.75 million per year free agent deal just a few seasons prior.
The drama persisted throughout the 2008-09 season, as the Hawks played musical chairs with their two high-ticket ‘tenders. While Huet showed signs of justifying his salary, the inconsistency he also showed opened the door for Khabibulin down the stretch.
After regaining his form, ‘The Bulin Wall’ led the Hawks deep into the playoffs, before mysteriously imploding in the Conference Finals against the Red Wings. Huet came on in relief but could not pick up where Khabby had left off. The Russian was cast adrift in June, and the Hawks announced they were ‘comfortable’ with Cristobal, now seconded by unknown quantity, 26-year old Finnish prospect Antti Niemi.
Former Hawk star Jeremy Roenick, who shone in Chicago during the Eddie Belfour years on teams that barely missed bringing home the big one, was blunt. He declared publicly that he didn’t know if the goalies with the current squad are good enough to win those critical sixteen playoff games.
Meanwhile, Craig Anderson, a Hawks castoff, has gone on to be the leader of a revived Avalanche team; and another former Hawk, Michael Leighton, has helped haul the Flyers back into the playoff picture. Both of these men are paid a pittance compared to Huet and Khabibulin’s Chicago deals.
To compound this, Antti Niemi—who makes less than a million dollars a year—has posted a superior record so far. With four straight starts and wins right before the March break, Niemi appears to have stolen the number one job away from the much maligned Huet.
The irony of all of this is highlighted by Huet’s own record. With a GAA of 2.29, he’s ranked 7th overall in the NHL, as he is with four shutouts; his 24 wins are good for 12th spot. But his save percentage of .903 is an unimpressive 32nd.
Some observers point out that having a capable tandem is actually a strength, citing the Stanley Cup success of past duos like Resch-Smith and Hasek-Osgood.
Detractors insist that having a true Number One is incontrovertible, and that neither Huet nor Niemi can credibly wear the Superman cape.
This is compounded by the questions about Huet’s mental toughness. He has never played more than 52 games in a regular season; and his playoff record has been challenged, not having won the series in which he appeared, for the Habs, Caps and Hawks respectively.
In conversation with the guru of hockey writers, Stan Fischler, about a year ago, Fischler told me he saw Huet’s contract as a ‘disaster’. More than a few writers and fans agree with Stan’s unsparing critique.
I examined the Huet conundrum in an October 2009 article featured at Kukla’s Korner, “Are The Hawks Hogtied with Huet?”
Statistically, Huet has carved out a place among NHL goalies that appears to place him in the top ten since the lockout. But for those who watch him time and again, there is something that has emerged in the last few years about Huet’s game that undermines one’s confidence, at least as a hockey fan.
A mercurial goalie like Dominik Hasek, or Patrick Roy, could have you biting your nails; but their sheer talent—some would say genius—would dazzle even their most savage critics. Of course, winning a Stanley Cup is a salve for all wounds.
To listen to current Hawk GM Stan Bowman, there is no lack of confidence in Cristobal Huet. But Bowman is quickly becoming known as a man who parses his words, very carefully.
And just this past week, the respected ESPN and Hockey Night In Canada commentator Pierre Lebrun announced the Hawks had been inquiring around the league about available goalies.
Is it any surprise Blackhawks loyalists are nervous about how their team is managing the netminding issue?
During the two-week trade hiatus, the discussion is already heating up as to whether or not the Blackhawks will or won’t make a move for another pipe patroller.
On the eve of the Olympic hockey tournament, a rumor was apparently floated on ESPN Chicago that Cristobal Huet was being packed off to a willing buyer.
GM Stan Bowman’s inscrutable manner will do nothing to dissuade the speculation; after all, no one foresaw d-man Kim Johnsson being obtained for the disappointing Cam Barker.
And the keynote for this year’s trades seems to be unpredictability. Who had predicted Dion Phaneuf and Jean Sebastien Giguere to the Leafs? Jason Blake to the Ducks? Ilya Kovalchuk to the Devils? And not so long ago, Dany Heatley to the Sharks? Scott Gomez to Montreal?
What we have seen, is that the improbable is as possible as the probable.
Those who maintain that Cristobal Huet’s contract makes him ‘untradeable’ may underestimate the importance, and impact, of what has taken place quite recently. The aforementioned deals prove that if two GMs really want to do business, they will find a way to make the numbers work.
Whether it means adding incentives like prospects and picks, taking back salary in various ways, or even including players who never even get a chance to put on their new jersey, NHL GMs are proving to be as creative as they need to be.
If the Blackhawks really want to trade Cristobal Huet and bring in another goalie, chances are they can also find a way to make the numbers work.
Taking into account that moving Huet’s contract can free up needed cap space, the Hawks might be even more motivated sellers.
Huet’s contract, while expensive at $5.625, has a relatively short term, ending June 2012. Given the uncertainty of the market, Huet’s undeniable ability—and more importantly, his relative durability— a motivated buyer may not be that difficult to find.
Another thing to remember is that a significant number of teams currently have issues regarding their goaltending. These issues range from goalies having disappointing seasons to the void left by those due to become free agents.
So what we may have is an environment where GMs are willing to help other GMs solve their problems, or at least have those problems change address.
It’s also been suggested that Chicago might ‘bury’ Huet and his salary in the minors by waiving him, or hope someone would claim him on re-entry. As odd as that might sound, they tried to do it with Khabibulin. So, not so odd, maybe.
Here’s an overview of the options, trading partners and players that Stan Bowman and the Blackhawk brain trust might be considering.
The teams and goalies listed here are either pending UFAs or RFAs (source NHLNumbers.com); or have been mentioned as being on the market by mainstream media sources (such as ESPN and TSN).
Atlanta: Johan Hedberg ($1.087 cap hit, UFA 2010); Ondrej Pavelec ($1.43MM cap hit, RFA 2010)
Once Kari Lehtonen was traded to Dallas, the assumption was made that the young Czech star, Olympian and ex-Chicago Wolf Pavelec would become the Thrashers’ goalie of the future, seconded by the able veteran Hedberg. But does Atlanta GM Don Waddell have other plans? If the Thrashers are driving for the playoffs, would he take on a Cristobal Huet who was instrumental in similar situations with Washington and Montreal? Does Bowman have enough faith in Niemi that he would install Hedberg as the backup? Could such a transaction be part of a larger exchange of assets as Waddell seeks to re-shape his team? Waddell has the cap room to make a move of this scope, and Bowman has some young talent to help sweeten the deal.
Boston: Tim Thomas ($5MM cap hit, signed through June 2013)
Last year’s Vezina Trophy winner on the trading block? Unthinkable, some say. Yet the rumor, whatever the origin, is out there. While Thomas has struggled, the poise of Tuukka Rask, another young Finnish netminder, has taken precedence as the former Eastern Conference champs are scrambling for a playoff berth. Does Peter Chiarelli commiserate with Stan Bowman and engage in contract-swapping in the hopes of sparking the Bruins—and divesting himself of Thomas’ long term commitment? As T2 has an NTC, that may be a non-starter. Or not.
Colorado: Peter Budaj ($1.25MM, UFA 2010)
While Budaj is a reliable number two and a Slovak Olympic choice, there are no evident reasons for the Avalanche and the Hawks to do business. And at least not until June prior to the draft. But that doesn’t mean something doesn’t happen between Chicago and Colorado. The Avs have a few pending UFAs, in Marek Svatos and John Michael Liles, they may want to move. The Hawks can use another defenseman and a scoring forward. Huet and Versteeg for Budaj, Svatos and Liles? The numbers match, and stranger things have happened.
Dallas: Marty Turco ($5.7MM cap hit, UFA 2010); Alex Auld ($1MM cap hit, UFA 2010)
Apparently, Dallas wants to move Turco, but they can’t find any takers. According to reports, they also want to reduce their cap exposure, so chances of them taking Huet in trade seem slim. And is Turco, with inconsistency being chronic over the past two years, a solution for Chicago? Or is Auld, who seems to be a career number two—and a rather good one at that—a man on the move again? Gambling on Kari Lehtonen is less than a safe bet for Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk, who strikes one as risk-averse.
The Oilers are a bizarre case. They let the dependable Dwayne Roloson walk and signed Nikolai Khabibulin to a $3.75 million a year contract for the next four seasons. However, Khabibulin has had to undergo back surgery and is out indefinitely. It was also reported today that he was arrested for DUI in Arizona. At 37, is he done? And if so, what do the Oilers do for a goalie? Jeff Drouin Deslauriers, Devan Dubnyk, and Duncan Tokarski don’t add up to strength in goal. Steve Tambellini has a few players who can help the Blackhawks. Maybe Stan Bowman can help him, too.
Florida: Tomas Vokoun ($5.7MM cap number/signed through June 2011), Scott Clemmensen ($1.2 MM cap number, signed through June 2012)
Vokoun has said he will waive his NTC for the ‘right situation’. Panther GM Randy Sexton has the mandate from ownership to do a total teardown of the Panthers. Vokoun has one of the best save percentages in the league and he’s the starting goalie for the Czech Olympians. Sexton would save half a million dollars next year in a Huet-for-Vokoun deal, and get himself some cost certainty for the following year. Is it possible, especially if Stan Bowman throws in good young forwards like Kris Versteeg? Or is Scott Clemmensen being looked at a backup for Niemi, assuming Huet is otherwise disposed of? And what about Florida’s superb goalie prospects, Alexander Salak and Jacob Markström? Which one of them may be ready to be groomed for prime time with a veteran as a mentor?
Los Angeles: Erik Ersberg ($750K cap hit, RFA June 2011), Jonathan Bernier ($765K, currently in the AHL)
Huet was originally drafted by the Kings. Would they take him back, to provide veteran insurance for Jonathan Quick, who has carried the load almost singlehandedly for them this season? Dean Lombardi has a mandate to win, and he has the budget and cap space to make big moves. Erik Ersberg is promising, but he doesn’t get enough work to show what he can do, and when he does, the numbers have not been good. Jonathan Bernier is an exceptional talent who played with the big club, but probably too early; and he probably has little chance of unseating Quick anytime soon. Do Ersberg or Bernier go to the Hawks in this kind of potential deal?
Minnesota: Josh Harding ($1.1 MM cap hit, RFA 2010)
Harding is another excellent young goaltender who has little or no possibility of unseating the incumbent. He’s also a pending RFA. Chicago and Minnesota have already made a trade. Will Bowman and Fletcher continue as dance partners?
Montreal: Jaroslav Halak ($775K cap hit, RFA 2010); Carey Price ($2.2 MM cap hit, RFA 2010)
If there’s anywhere where the expression ‘goalie controversy’ has more resonance, it’s Montreal, where the sports pages, TV , radio and Internet boards in both English and French are sizzling with debate over who should stay and who should go. The consensus among the pundits is that Montreal can’t keep both. If Price stays, they think he needs to be pushed by a veteran standby. Huet was a fan favorite among supporters of Le Canadien until Gainey exiled him. With Gainey gone, does the ‘Count of Monte Cristobal’ return? And how would Habs GM Pierre Gauthier make the money match up with his creaky cap?
Nashville: Dan Ellis ($1.75MM cap hit, UFA 2010); Pekka Rinne ($725K cap hit, UFA 2010)
Preds GM David Poile has two first-class goalies. They are also both pending UFAs. By his own admission, he can afford to keep one. He also needs players who can score. Should Stan Bowman call him? Being a Division rival, would it amount to anything more than conversation?
New York Islanders: Martin Biron ($1.4Mm cap hit, UFA 2010); Dwayne Roloson ($2.5MM cap hit, signed through June 2011)
The goalie situation on the Island is still muddled. Rick DiPietro is back, but is his back, back to where it needs to be? Does Garth Snow have a goalie, in Biron or Roloson, the Hawks would be comfortable with? Would he take Huet off the Hawks’ hands as more insurance in case RDP is SOL? And do the Blackhawks have players that can help the Islanders get back to the playoffs? They do indeed…and Snow has enough cap room to help relieve Stan Bowman’s cap migraine.
Ottawa: Mike Brodeur ($520K cap hit, UFA 2010), Pascal Leclaire ($3.8MM cap hit, UFA June 2011)
One of the bizarre twists in the world of hockey is how players rejected by one organization become life-savers for another. Brodeur, no relation to Marty, was released by Chicago because of chronic back trouble. He came back through Ottawa’s minor league system to sub for the Sens when both netminders were injured and promptly stoned the opposition. But Brodeur’s fling with fame was brief, and he’s in the minors again because the Senators have two NHL goalies. Senators GM Bryan Murray likely won’t touch Huet with a ten foot pole, unless, that is, he wants to move oft-injured Pascal Leclaire. Is there any common ground between Ottawa and Chicago? Probably not enough to transact.
Philadelphia: Michael Leighton ($300K cap hit, UFA 2010); Brian Boucher ($925K cap hit, UFA 2010)
Yet another Blackhawk castoff, Leighton’s finally landed on his feet in Philly and is backstopping the Flyers as they have surged into a playoff spot. With Ray Emery injured, and another former Blackhawk, Brian Boucher, seemingly forgotten, is Paul Holmgren looking for veteran help? Could Leighton—or Boucher–go for the right deal? And how could the Flyers possibly shoehorn Huet’s contract into their salary structure?
St. Louis: Chris Mason ($3MM cap hit, UFA 2010)
The Blues don’t look like a playoff team, but then they didn’t look destined for the postseason at this time last year either. Does Blues GM John Davidson become a seller? Does Stan Bowman have players or prospects of interest to the Blues’ agenda for the future? Will St Louis try to extend Mason who can command a hefty raise as a UFA? Is Huet a goalie that former goalie Davidson would trust?
Tampa: Antero Niittymaki ($600K cap hit, UFA 2010)
Niittymaki has re-launched his reputation in Tampa. But he’s a free agent in June. The Lightning have just been sold. GM Brian Lawton needs to add some scoring talent, and he may be ready to entertain Bowman’s overtures.
Toronto: Joey McDonald ($650K cap hit, UFA 2010)
McDonald, developed in the Red Wings’ systems, did stalwart work in Long Island and in Toronto. He’s another asset Brian Burke can use to re-stock with draft picks. And as Burke constantly reminds his fellow GMs, he’s more than ready to assume any excess salary teams want to trim. But as the Leafs now have Giguere and Jonas Gustavsson, taking Huet on, is, logically, out of the question. Isn’t it?
Washington: Jose Theodore ($4.5 MM cap hit, UFA 2010)
Theodore is, in many ways, ‘Turco North’: a high priced goalie whose best days seem behind him. Reviled in Washington, he has nonetheless stepped in and patrolled the pipes for the Capitals as they’ve roared to the top of the standings. Theo, though, was and remains the stopgap solution. Caps GM George McPhee never wanted to let Huet go to Chicago. Would he take him back, and would Bowman have to take Theo in return?
In summary: the Blackhawks may say they are ready to go forward with the personnel they have in net, but recent actions suggest otherwise.
Watching the broadcast of the Columbus game, the look on Huet’s face as he walked through the tunnel ahead of his teammates to the locker room during the second intermission was more telling.
It looked that of a man who appeared to have lost his job.
They say hockey is a sport of redemption…but does Huet still have time to redeem himself?
And will that be, in Chicago?
- …Niemi & Huet: partners or rivals, and for how long?
About the Author: David Morris' hockey writing has been featured at KuklasKorner.com and Chicago Sports Then & Now. He is also the North American correspondent for leading Swiss hockey site, Planete Hockey.