Let me be straightforward: I did not want Antti Niemi to leave town, but I was not as concerned as many fans seemed to be about Marty Turco taking over. Considering how things have played out so far this season, it is frighteningly obvious that Marty Turco is a better goaltender than Antti Niemi.
Yet, when the Hawks finally did look the other way, leaving Niemi to sign with whoever he wanted, and officially acquired Marty Turco, Chicago fans once again rose up to bitch and moan; "dos peeple runnin' dat team donnt know wat der dooin'. Day can't let Niemi wok away like dis. Dis Turco guy iss old and wash'd up my friend."
I heard it everywhere on radio stations, and it came through in print
and on the television aswell. Everyone feared the departure of Niemi.
I got sucked-in to paranoia-purging as well, deciding outright that
Niemi was one of the three players that it was most important for the
Hawks to keep, along with Niklas Hjalmarsson and Patrick Sharp.
By the time the Hawks
went with Turco, I was sure the Hawks had chosen
correctly in retaining Patrick Sharp over Niemi, but I was still sad to see him
*NOTE: Sharp currently leads the NHL in
goals and is 2nd in points.
As it were, Marty Turco appeared to be the anti-Niemi (ha-ha, I had to work that in here): an aging veteran who's play was slipping. Niemi, on the other hand, seemed to finally have caught his stride in the NHL and and appeared to improving. Under those notions, it's not so crazy to see why we didn't want Niemi to go, but Turco's anti-Niemity turned out to be the good thing that none of us, at least to this degree, expected.
As I tend to do, I blame this on the Cubs, who always have me expecting the worst. I saw Niemi signing with the Western Conference Runner-up San Jose Sharks and evolving and blossoming into some sort of ice-skating puck vacuum.
Still, I knew this was at least slightly irrational, and had faith that Patrick Sharp, after taking names in the playoffs, was a more important piece to the Hawks' puzzle than Niemi. Again, though I preferred Niemi, I couldn't help but think that Turco would be at least an adequate replacement.
I never saw any reason for anyone to doubt that Marty Turco, a veteran goaltender with a good-to-great track record, could come into Chicago and do just as good as Niemi had done. Last year, Turco was 22-20 with a .913 save percentage, a 2.72 goals-against average, and 4 shutouts for the 37-31-14 Dallas Stars. Playing behind the Hawks, I imagined, would be all Turco would need to both improve these stats and re-motivate him to dominate.
Even though Turco played behind a much inferior Dallas team, Niemi's save percentage was a mere one-hundredth of-a-point better than Turco's (.912 to .913). Niemi's 26-7 record was notably better than Turco's and he had seven shutouts to Turco's four, though I again claim this to be due to the respective teams they played on.
Shouldn't hockey fans in Chicago have been smart enough to see in advance how these stats would naturally improve for Turco playing behind the same, or almost the same, Championship-caliber defense that Niemi did?
The most surprising aspect of where the two goaltenders are now is that Niemi landed on a very solid hockey team that many "experts'" chose to win the Conference, the San Jose Sharks, and his numbers have still dropped considerably. No matter how average anyone thought Niemi was, I don't think anyone expected this kind of a breakdown from him.
Here is where the two goaltenders stand today:
Marty Turco: 11G, 6-3-1, .916 SV%, 2.67 GAA
Antti Niemi: 4G, 1-3-0, .854 SV%, 4.49 GAA
*NOTE: Even back-up goalie Corey Crawford has performed better than Niemi this year; 4 G, 1-3, .903 SV%, 3.03 GAA.
Turco's immediate ability to improve both his save percentage and goals-against average from where they were at the end of last season is not surprising, and I would watch for that goals-against average to continue to drop as the Hawks' new defense acclimates itself and Brian Campbell is able to settle in after his return from injury.
But why has Niemi still apparently been waiting for the lamp to go on from Kaner's Cup-winning shot in OT of game six in Philly? How can a guy who was solid, and brilliant at times, simply seem to have lost it? I don't know, but it appears that GM Stan Bowman, once again, knew exactly what he was doing when he let Niemi walk away and opted for the cheaper, older Turco.
I believe I called Niemi "a good goaltender who could be great at times," during the playoffs last year. In retrospect, I think we were looking at an average goaltender with the ability to be great in spurts... while playing behind a Championship-caliber defense. This difference may seem slight, but noticing it means everything when attempting to run a successful and winning franchise.
It is amazing how quickly we forget, or chose to omit the memory of, the road we walked in on. Because we quickly forgot how good Cristobal Huet looked early-on last season, we clung to Niemi and the immediate improvement he gave us when Huet forgot that he was supposed to be playing hockey. Luckily for us, Niemi was at his best at the precise moments that the Hawks needed him to be, and the team won the Stanley Cup. Because the team won the Cup, we collectively decided that Niemi had to be our guy, and that no one else, not even Turco, would do in his place.
Kudos to Stan Bowman for staring this beast in the eye and smacking it down like the ill-conceived notion that it was. Niemi was not worth the amount of money that he wanted, and now it appears that he's not even worth the money that San Jose will end up paying him. While some of us, like me, were hesitantly open to the idea of Niemi leaving, only one man in Chicago truly demonstrated his knowledge of the situation and the players involved.
Once again, luckily for Hawks fans, that man was GM Stan Bowman; and we now have Marty Turco to thank him for instead of the Antti Niemi that could have been.