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Tuesday, July 13, 2010
Blackhawks' facelift getting painful

By Melissa Isaacson
ESPNChicago.com

The whimpering has temporarily stopped at my house after the initial Blackhawks' purge.

Blackhawks Parade
The city fell in love with the Blackhawks players who won the Stanley Cup, but there will be many new faces next season.

Frankly, it was becoming unbearable.

Dustin Byfuglien. Kris Versteeg. Andrew Ladd. Brent Sopel. Adam Burish. Ben Eager. Colin Fraser. Soon John Madden.

It got to the point where I was afraid to call home with the latest news, but I knew I had to give my 12-year-old son a heads up. You know, better he hear it from me than on the street.

Of course, I was gentle.

"Steeger," I'd say simply into the phone and then wait for the wailing to begin. And then, after my husband stopped crying, our son would start.

So the announcement that the Hawks matched San Jose's four-year, $14 million offer sheet to restricted free agent Niklas Hjalmarsson was met with some relief.

A young defenseman with nothing but upside, Hjalmarsson, 23, is now part of the core, Hawks GM Stan Bowman said. And Bowman is big on the core, which he'd like us to believe is still big enough to choke on.

But the uneasiness, if you have any hopes of the Hawks winning another Stanley Cup, is far from over as Antti Niemi appears headed to arbitration.

ESPNChicago.com Blackhawks beat writer Jesse Rogers wrote that Chicago could have had a real public relations coup had it waited until after the championship to sign Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith to their sizable extensions rather than doing it at midseason.

As the dominoes fell and the others had to go, it would have been easier to take. Even if the Hawks had not won, it could have at least cushioned the blow.

Now, on top of the championship team being dismantled piece by painful piece, there is also the question of why Hjalmarsson's and Niemi's contracts weren't addressed before July 1.

The loss of Niemi would be huge, right up there with the rest.

Is Corey Crawford a capable backup? Sure. A backup. But if, as a Blackhawks' fan, you watched Niemi in the playoffs and don't want him in the net for the foreseeable future, I'm not sure who you were watching.

Thrust into the job to replace Cristobal Huet, all the first-year player from Finland did was almost everything right in holding the upper hand against some of the most highly regarded -- not to mention highly paid -- goalies in the game.

Niemi saved an average of 28 shots in the postseason -- 45 in a Game 1 victory against San Jose in the conference finals -- with a save percentage of 91 percent. Just as important, he let adversity roll off him like a savvy veteran, which is surely worth a raise from $827,000 to the $3 million range. Any higher than $2.5 million, however, and the Hawks will be forced to let Niemi become unrestricted and thus lose him.

Don't count on them to overpay a goalie again. Obviously, the contracts of Brian Campbell and Huet are the most convenient examples of holding the team and its salary cap hostage. But so is Hjalmarsson now. And, with any luck, so will Niemi if the two sides come to terms.

But some scenarios are more palpable than others.

Finding a way to unload Campbell's $7 million deal sounds reasonable in theory but is not going to be easy -- if not downright impossible -- particularly with Campbell's partial no-trade clause. It would be more than a shame if the team had to part with Patrick Sharp, for whom the Hawks are listening to offers, according to Rogers. One of the most versatile players on the team in addition to being a leader and part of that core we keep hearing about, Sharp would be the worst departure yet, if it happened.

Antti Niemi
Those who don't understand the importance of Antti Niemi must not have been watching the postseason.
Bowman keeps reminding us that this is part of the game; that we all knew this was going to happen and, indeed, winning the Cup is a strong salve.

He tries to sell prospects and newcomers like Bryan Bickell, Jake Dowell, Jack Skille and Viktor Stalberg. If they pan out and their new nicknames are any good, fans will be more likely to buy it.

But not now. Not yet.

The Hawks, like any championship team, grow on their fans. By the time they win it all, it feels like they're part of your family. Big Buff, Laddy and Kaner -- their numbers, nicknames and playing styles embed in our consciousness.

The numbers don't add up. We get it.

But right now, we don't want to hear it.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.