When Steve Kouleas first started saying that the Blackhawks were going to walk away from Antti Niemi and sign Marty Turco, I’ll admit I was a little sceptical. It’s not that I thought it was a bad idea, it was just that I couldn’t picture any NHL general manager winning a Stanley Cup, then looking at his goaltender and saying ‘I don’t need to have this guy back.’
Generally, playoff runs are money in the bank for goaltenders. Nikolai Khabibulin got a truck load of cash from the Blackhawks after winning the Cup in 2004, while Kiprusoff’s performance threw a spotlight on his career, The Hurricanes made Cam Ward their starter after one run in 2006, while the Oilers re-signed Dwayne Roloson after his performance. Marc-Andre Fleury got a shiny new big-money contract after his run to the finals, while his victorious opponent Chris Osgood got more time in Detroit. Philadelphia spent a fairly high dollar figure to retain their playoff goalie, despite the fact they had picked him up on waivers earlier in the season. Heck, Khabibulin was able to get a second contract this past year from the hapless Oilers despite a rough time in Chicago, at least in part because of that Cup win.
The point here is that managers generally look at a finals appearance as a huge positive indicator for a goaltender, often using it to overrule other warning signs (the age of a player, his track record, how he was acquired, his health, etc.).
The funny thing is that the contract Niemi got in arbitration wasn’t really ridiculous, given the numbers that everyone looks at (26-7-4, 2.25 GAA, 0.912 SV%) and the fact that he just won the Stanley Cup. But when one starts poking around his numbers, questions arise. For starters, Niemi’s even-strength save percentage was low for a starter (0.914, 31st in the NHL) but his save percentage as a whole was good thanks to an exceptional penalty-killing number (0.899, 8th in the NHL). Was that because Niemi was just that much better while killing penalties, or was he benefitting from Chicago’s penalty kill? We can’t know for sure, but I’d bet more of the latter than the former. Then there was Niemi’s middling AHL performance last season, where he played second fiddle to Corey Crawford.
I’m not saying Niemi’s a bad goaltender – far from it. I think he’s quite a decent one, not a high-end starter but a guy who is going to have a good career. But the goaltending market the last few years has been one that favours buyers: lots of goaltenders, not much cap space, and not very many jobs. So for the Blackhawks, the choice was between Niemi and Marty Turco, with Turco earning about half as much as Niemi.
Is Niemi worth that much more than Turco? I don’t think he is; they’re pretty comparable players with the exception that Turco’s track record is much longer (or, depending on point of view, that Niemi’s much younger). Earlier this summer I suggested Turco was going to be a bad signing for some team, but that was based on the fact that I figured the Turco name would attract a lot more money than it did.
Chicago’s made a non-traditional move here, but despite the lousy optics of dumping a Stanley Cup-winning goaltender, I think it is highly likely to have been the right one.