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Monday, August 2, 2010
Hawks' offseason decisions questionable

By Jesse Rogers

If you believe the Blackhawks made some mistakes this offseason, then losing Antti Niemi -- and getting nothing for him -- must rank at the top of the list.

The Hawks knew Niemi was due for a significant raise, Stan Bowman said so days after they won the Stanley Cup. When the arbitrator came in with a fairly accommodating number ($2.75 million), there seemed to be two choices: move some small salaries and fit Niemi in, or trade him.

Bowman said on Monday he tried, but couldn’t get a deal done. Obviously, teams knew the Hawks had little leverage. Why give up something when hours later the player might become an unrestricted free agent and you can get him for nothing?

Antti Niemi
The Hawks decided to let go of Stanley Cup-winning goaltender Antti Niemi.
It is curious though. Wouldn’t a team that liked Niemi at least offer a very low-round draft pick or scrub prospect just so they don’t have to compete with other teams for his services? From the Hawks’ perspective, getting something is better than nothing.

The answer might lie in recent Hawks' goaltending history. The last thing they want is to be stuck with too much salary. (See Cristobal Huet and Nikolai Khabibulin circa 2008-2009). The difference here is Niemi’s salary is seemingly much more moveable than either one of those. The other issue might have to do with public relations. If Bowman is getting calls from Western Conference contenders, can he really trade Niemi to one of those teams instead of letting them just sign him? Niemi to San Jose via trade is a PR nightmare.

In any case, the time to trade Niemi was well before the hearing. In fact, imagine what the Hawks might get for him if he’s traded days after winning the Stanley Cup.

Of course, keeping him would have been nice, too.

This may all be hindsight, but as written previously in this blog, the Blackhawks didn’t seem to take preemptive action in addressing their two major restricted free agents that were left after several trades. Their hands may have been tied on most of those moves -- though Andrew Ladd signing for “only” $2.35 million raised some eyebrows -- but with Niklas Hjalmarsson and Niemi the Hawks were slow to pull the trigger.

Bowman’s eve of free agency statement, “Offer sheets don’t concern me,” is the quote of the summer, and the subsequent offer to Hjalmarsson more than likely sealed Niemi’s fate. There is little doubt the money the Hawks had for Niemi before getting Hjalmarsson’s offer sheet was higher than after they matched it.

Bowman simply did not think one of his restricted free agents would get an offer. Sources say the Hawks were prepared to give Hjalmarsson a “decent” raise, but only for one year. After all, he was under their control and did not have arbitration rights. The raise would have been OK, but far below the $3.5 million Sharks general manager Doug Wilson offered.

Only Bowman knows why a June 30 multi-year offer wasn’t made to Hjalmarsson or Niemi. And only Bowman knows why he couldn’t move Niemi sooner. Hoping for a miracle arbitration award is about the only strategy the Hawks were employing.

In the end, they lost out on another major piece of their championship. One they didn’t have to say goodbye to.

But the shocker of the whole drama is that Marty Turco signed for only $1.3 million. He turned down more money elsewhere and took a huge pay cut from his salary in Dallas. He said on Monday that he knew he wanted to play for the Hawks back when his season ended.

Turco certainly fits the Hawks’ style but can he stop pucks the way Niemi did? And where does Niemi go now? It would be a surprise if he didn’t join a contending team. Did the Hawks just hand a goalie-starved Cup contender its final piece? Time will answer all, and answer if the Hawks prioritized the right way.