Before too long, I believe we simply will be calling him Handy Andy.
Finland's Andrew Niemi seems to have a head lock on winning the backup position in goal for the Blackhawks. You might know him as Antti, but I'm more comfortable with Huckleberry Finn or Mickey Finn, the Chicago bartender who invented knockout drops and likely was one of the Blackhawks' first feisty fans in the Roaring Twenties.
And I'm certainly more familiar with Andy Hardy, Andy Griffith and Andy Devine. So in plain English, Antti breaks down to Andrew in Finnish and we naturally will be sticking with Andy the rest of the year here to avoid me having to take a Berlitz course. Actually, since it's Greek originally, Antti derives directly from Andreas.
But, at the risk of being an ugly American (see my photo for details), let's try limiting the United Nations to a precious few, because we already have a Frenchman starting in goal in Cristobal Huet and a Finn in support in Andy and might be in negotiations with visiting Libyan dictator Muammar Gadhafi to be the sixth defenseman. Gaddy is the kind of crackdown nutcase for whom the defense is searching to replace Matt Walker.
After Corey Crawford took it on the chin in Wednesday night's 6-2 loss in Washington, Niemi seems to have won the backup goalie derby by default. No matter what goes down Friday night at United Center when Cristobal Huet is expected to start against Minnesota, the stage will move to Finland Oct. 2-3 when the Hawks open the season against Florida and that puts Niemi in the driver's seat to be No. 2. Since Niemi was signed out of Finland after a strong 2008 season for the SM-Liiga Pelicans of the Finnish Elite League, going 26-6-14 with a 2.35 goals-against and a .927 percentage on his saves, Niemi should polish off Crawford during two exhibition games in Finland that precede the Panthers.
C'mon, you don't think Niemi has come this far at the age of 26 to miss his chance to be a NHL goalie by flopping on his real home ice. Crawford may be the bigger body, but Niemi is quicker side-to-side and more athletic at 6-foot-2, 200 pounds.
The Finnish scouting report on Niemi emphasizes that he covers the net well, shows a placid demeanor during pressure situations, displays strong hockey instincts and relies on fleet footwork.
One of his weaknesses reportedly is that he allows too many rebounds. Nice for him to have something in common with Huet. Gives them something to talk about.
The Finns are invading the NHL nets. Niemi would join Calgary's Miikka Kiprusoff, Toronto's Vesa Toskala and Minnesota's Niklas Backstrom as NHL goalies emerging from his country.
If Huet encounters problems holding onto the starting job in Chicago, Niemi will receive a major opportunity to make a name for himself. Even if he makes 20 to 25 starts this season in support of a successful Huet, Handy Andy will have played a big role in bolstering what now is one of the Blackhawks' greatest unknowns: WHAT WILL THEY GET FROM GOAL???
While preseason is experimentation and not that worthy of passing lasting judgments, I know this for a fact. Huet had better play his ass off Friday night to stop the alarm bells from clanging and banging louder than Milton Bradley if he's forced to attend next January's Cub convention and get stripped clean in the ballroom as a special gift to fans.
Since the meaning of the name Cristobal is "bearing Christ inside" and the meaning of Andy is "man, warrior", we should be all set for the season. But let's leave the Lord out of it until we find out if Huet can be a consistent stopper rather than an occasional sensation with a tendency to come unglued at times.
Maybe the 40-day fast won't be needed if we have to appeal to the higher powers.
Some say that when Denis Savard let Huet get buried last preseason by seven Columbus goals that his pink slip was already being composed in the front office. Let's pray to heaven Joel Quenneville won't have to make a huge decision Friday on whether to yank Huet after a fourth or fifth goal and save his job.
The defense should be out in full strength to make sure Huet gets started right. No one can doubt that he needs a lot of confidence building, and even if it's preseason, it's critical right now for him to put some trust in the bank and halt all the critics haranguing him for bad performances he hasn't yet delivered.
Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau gave Patrick Kane and his line faint praise for their efforts Wednesday in Washington. Although Patrick Sharp scored a goal, Washington's Mike Knuble was also able to score on Crawford from the slot when he skated around Sharp to get open.
As for the line of Kane, Sharp and Jonathan Toews, here is Boudreau's take on them to the Washington media: "I don't think they had one of their better games. You can see when Kane decided to be Kane for a couple shifts, he's pretty good."
A couple shifts? While Kane and Toews played only about 10 minutes or so, that's a damning observation. At his age, Kane needs to bring it hard all the time, not some times when he desires.
The Blackhawks don't have much more time to get prepared for the season. It would be handy if Andy showed in Finland that he might be Kiprusoff or Backstrom one day.
It would be handy if Huet showed Friday there is no need to get all wrought up about who's the backup. It would be handy if the Hawks left for foreign soil with one victory to show from their first four exhibition games in the good ol' USA.
Maybe the preseason means nothing. But if Huet sucks Friday night, try telling that to all those new, excited Blackhawk bandwagon fans holding those expensive tickets in their hands for the coming months while killing time until the Stanley Cup tickets are available.
The pressure's on. And there's no time like the present to start training the spotlight on Huet and his teammates and see how they handle the glare.
If the preseason franchise record of 19,734, set last Saturday at the UC, is matched or surpassed Friday against the Wild, the need to exceed expectations on the ice is going to rise right along with the attendance.
If there is a disconnect between record turnouts in Chicago and an underachieving club, the Blackhawks might need more than Handy Andy to save them. By firing Savard and Dale Tallon, you may have noticed president John McDonough is hard to please and quite reactive.
How his impatience seeps into the clubhouse and affects a charged atmosphere if the losses mount will be something to watch. Like waiting for a volcano to explode.
Speaking of lava flows, I also hope you noticed that Kyle Beach has changed addresses again shortly after the Hawks cut him from camp.
The Spokane Chiefs traded for Beach, sending two defensemen to Lethbridge (Alberta) two games into the Western Hockey League season. Beach is expected to play in Spokane's home opener Saturday on the same ice where he and the Chiefs' Chris Bruton had a famed tussle January, 2008, in which Bruton was suspended two games and Beach got a concussion.
The Spokane media is focusing on Beach's "bad boy" reputation and wondering when their new volcano will explode as well.
"Kyle will start here with a clean slate," Chiefs GM Tim Speltz said. "He's older (19). He's more mature. I think he wants to do the right things. We're comfortable he wants to be a pro.
"I think he understands now after being at two camps with Chicago...I think he understands more and more what it takes to be a pro."
So keep an eye on Spokane, an eye on the Blackhawks' clubhouse and a third eye on Huet and Niemi.
The third eye is said to lead to inner realms of higher consciousness and evoke visions of clairvoyance. So it might come in damn handy if and when we are rolling our eyes and our dice watching Huet.
Handy Andy ready to back up Huet--and replace him if needed
Before too long, I believe we simply will be calling him Handy Andy.