The Blackhawks Made the Right Choice Between Niemi and Hjalmarsson

Niklas Hjalmarsson is staying in Chicago

For at least the next few months, there will be parts of the Blackhawks fan base that argue about whether or not the Hawks made the right decision when they countered San Jose’s offer sheet for Niklas Hjalmarsson, ultimately costing the team goalie Antti Niemi. The Sharks made a calculated attack at their already-handicapped rival, and appear to have successfully forced Chicago’s hand.

However, a more in-depth review of the situation reveals that the Blackhawks made the appropriate decision when selecting the 23-year-old defenseman over their netminder.

First, consider the strengths of this Blackhawks roster.

They led the NHL last year, allowing the fewest shots on goal per game (25.1) in the league. A big part of this statistic was the aggressive willingness of the Hawks defensemen to blocks shots before they reached the goalie. However, the Blackhawks ranked just 17th in the NHL in team blocked shots last year, a surprisingly low number. By keeping Hjalmarsson on the roster, the Blackhawks return their top three shot blockers (Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook were the top two; Brian Campbell was fifth).

Also consider that the Blackhawks penalty killing unit was elite last year, and Hjalmarsson was a big part of that effort. With Brent Sopel traded and John Madden presumably leaving via free agency, losing Hjalmarsson would mean the Hawks would be without three of their top five primary penalty killers; keeping Hjalmarsson, however, maintains the core group of defensemen. The expectation will be that he sees more time killing penalties now, and that he continues to provide excellent coverage on this unit.

So we’ve established that Hjalmarsson is a key part of the skaters in front of the net. But did the Hawks overpay by matching the Sharks’ offer sheet?

There was a fairly deep pool of defensemen on the market this year, and evaluating the group of available blue liners shows that the Blackhawks paid a reasonable price for Hjalmarsson. Including Anaheim’s addition of Andy Sutton on Monday afternoon, the top 16 defensemen in this year’s free agent class averaged contracts of 3.1 years and $3.138M per season. The group used to determine this average ranges from Sergei Gonchar, Dan Hamhuis and Paul Martin on the high side to Kurtis Foster, Brett Lebda and Brett Clark on the shallow side.

Considering age, performance and expectations, the Blackhawks paid a fair market value for Hjalmarsson.

On the other side of the coin, Niemi’s demands and arbitration award have not only priced him out of Chicago, but could put the 27-year-old and agent Bill Zito in a tough spot looking for work in North America.

Niemi had an exceptional rookie season in the NHL. He ended the regular season ranked fourth in the league with a 2.25 goals against average, but his fairly pedestrian .912 save percentage ranked just 20th in the NHL. In the postseason, Niemi’s numbers came back to the pack as he allowed 2.63 goals per game with a similar .910 save percentage.

The Blackhawks allowed considerably more shots per game (29.3) than they did for Niemi during the regular season (24.0). That is as much a function of consistently better competition and facing the same opponent in a series rather than an individual game or two as it is the Hawks blue line being banged up in mid-April. What matters, of course, is that Niemi started in net 22 times in the postseason and won 16 of those contests.

Perhaps the first major flaw in the approach of Niemi’s camp was pushing the deal to arbitration. Zito clearly doesn’t know his Bowman Family History. Simply looking back at the career of GM Stan Bowman’s father, Scotty, as a head coach and member of management over the years reveals that he has always held the five skaters moving up and down the ice in higher regard than the gentleman in the crease; defense(men) win championships, not goalies.

Anyone paying attention to Stan’s early decisions as a General Manager in Chicago sees that his face isn’t the only thing that looks a lot like his old man; Stan has shown a very smooth handle of the salary cap as well as a special eye for talent and the ability to get maximum value in return for assets.

Beyond the Bowman philosophy, the bigger question is whether or not Niemi was (or is) worth what his agent was asking from the Blackhawks?

If we again turn our attention to the market this summer, we’ll see that Zito clearly misjudged his position. ESPN’s EJ Hradek voiced his opinion well on Monday:

But clearly, the cap crunch in Chicago made the circumstances anything but normal.  

After watching several championship teammates get shipped to various parts of North America, Niemi and Zito had to have known the Hawks were seriously up against it. They had to know what the contractual limitations were going to be.  

They also had to know that the market for goaltenders had dried up pretty quickly in July. So much so, that Sharks veteran Evgeni Nabokov bolted for the KHL and ex-Stars G Marty Turco remained unsigned through July.

With that information, Niemi (and Zito) had to decide whether or not he wanted to stay in Chicago at a reduced rate/term (Turco got only one year at $1.3 million) or go to arbitration with the strong possibility that the club would walk away and make him an unrestricted free agent.

Again, the unusual circumstances make this a tough call. If Zito had/has a deal with another club in his back pocket (if so, expect Niemi to sign somewhere else very soon), the decision to go to arbitration makes perfect sense. If not, there’s more risk involved.

As Hradek mentions, the goalie market this summer was bloated in relation to the number of available positions; when guys like Nabokov and Manny Legace are going overseas in mid-July, the demand for goalies is clearly smaller than the supply.

Looking at five comparable goalies that have received new deals this summer, it becomes clear that Zito was out of his mind to expect $2.75M, much less the reported $4M he asked for in arbitration. An average of the top five goalies to get a new deal this summer (Jaroslav Halak, Dan Ellis, Antero Nittymaki, Chris Mason and Michael Leighton) reveals an average cap number of only $2.13M; if you remove Halak’s four-year commitment from St. Louis, the number drops to only $1.725M, over a full million dollars less than the arbitrator awarded Niemi.

Of those five goalies, all of them except Halak received two-year deals. What that means is that Philadelphia had agreed to pay their Stanley Cup goaltender, Leighton, only $305k more than Niemi in two years instead of only one for Niemi.

Zito priced himself completely out of the market.

As we’ve already discussed, there is now an issue for Zito to explain to his client: there isn’t a team with enough cap space to even offer Niemi his arbitration value. All 19 of the teams that currently have over $3M in available cap space have two goalies under contract for next season, and Philadelphia GM Paul Holmgren went on record removing the Flyers from the conversation already on Monday evening.

Hradek even speculates that Niemi might end up back in Europe in 2010-11, just a few short months after lifting the Stanley Cup above his year.

On the other end of the spectrum, the addition or Turco looks even better relative to the market. Without even factoring that Turco is taking a $4.1M paycut to come to Chicago and reportedly turned down a multi-year deal from the Flyers for considerably more money than the $1.3M he’ll make with the Hawks, Turco signed below the cap numbers of Leighton, Nittymaki and even Mason. Indeed, the Blackhawks will skate two goalies and three forwards for less money than the Blues are paying Halak this season.

Just as the Hawks did last year when they convinced John Madden to buy into something special on the West Side by taking a substantial paycut, they have again struck a fantastic deal with one of Madden’s teammates from the University of Michigan in Turco.

Will Turco become a postseason hero as Niemi did last year? Or will he serve as an inexpensive mentor to the next young star to emerge between the pipes in Chicago, Corey Crawford? We’re at least 82 games away from knowing what the future holds for the 2010-11 Blackhawks. However, looking at the Hawks’ strengths as a team and the marketplace for defensemen and goalies this summer, it’s obvious that the Hawks made the right choice in selecting Hjalmarsson over Niemi.

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7 Responses to The Blackhawks Made the Right Choice Between Niemi and Hjalmarsson

  1. Steve says:

    Great article.

    Agree 100%.

    Is tan Bowman your boss? You seem to have inside info and praise Stan for everything. Great blog, I just to know if this is an extension of team marketing. You put up great posts with media clips almost instantly.

  2. Vince Luciano says:

    I do not 100% agree with this, it is a great article and had good points, but the way I feel is still that we should have picked niemi over Hjalmarsson for really 2 main reasons. 1) 3.5 million is way to much for him, I liked Jalmy, had no problem with him but he really did not deserve that much of a raise. Niemi got 2.75 which seemed very fair and should have been higher than Hjalmarssons putting him at I would say a max of 2.25. It just seems like we already made one large mistake overpaying a defensemen (Cambell, the only blackhawk that I wish we could have gotten rid of this summer) and although it wont bite us nearly as hard as Cambells it still may hurt us in the next couple years. And 2) is that if you look at the prospects that we have wether it be Lalonde who will hopefully be up this year, Leddy, and Olsen, it is not like we would lose all that much from him, Not to mention if they re-sign Hendry who imo did very well this season being a role player.

    Just to clarify so I dont sound like one of those people who think we are doomed this year, I think Turco will do a great job with the defense that we have, and hope the best for him. On top of that it would be great for to have a veteran guy like him there to work with Crawford who may finally get a chance to be a blackhawk for more than a day. So for all the people that still think that we dont have a shot they should probably re-look at all the retarded comments they made in a couple months from now

  3. Steve says:

    yeah we will be fine.

    hammer is paid pretty much market. Niemi at 2.75 was over market pricing.

    Turco at 1.3 with Crawford getting a shot is awesome. Now let’s get McKee.

    On your point about D men, young D men, there will be a year we need 2 young guys. Do we want this year or next year as the year. The big 4 will be here. Do we have 2 newbees or a Sopel like guy this year and the best young guy.

    Then next year, you have core 4, best young guy even better and then another new guy. It gives your mobile guys time to go against adult forwards in the A. They need that.

    I hope for a VET D man, let the best kid win and then suck it up with 2 younger type guys. Also, after another year, maybe we can trade Soupy. Then you have core 3, young guy from this year and a new mobile type guy, Leddy, to play with Hammer.

    Things get easier from here on out. But again, if even 1 guy is real good and at end of year is under-paid, we have a real shot. We need 1 kid to be really effective, or 2 and we will be fine. We have enough guys to call up at the same price to give it a shot. Nothing like having time to bang out a Hawk thought.

  4. Vince Luciano says:

    I completely agree with you dude, wether they sign a guy like boyton or some other vet that would be a great addition to the 3rd line D to pair up with one of the young guys, or even if they go with the Lalonde-Leddy duo that would be kind of cool to see them grow together since just from the prospect camp they were being compared to as the next seabrook-keith which is awsome… just to step away from the defense aspect what do you think of Beach, do you think hell be on the team this year, i kinda hope he does personally because other than the 2 defensmen all we really need is that last spot on the 4th maybe 3rd line and we got a full team

  5. Steve says:

    I don’t think Beach is ready. He has not spent time in the AHL to learn how to get the puck out each and every time via pass, chip etc. Has he learned D zone coverage? Heck, one could argue Kane isn’t that great in his zone. He will get that much more effective when Kaner is not a liability. He got eaten up in the Finals and it should have showed him what to work on. Last year was strength and conditioning. Check. This year, some chalk board work. It would help us a lot. anyway, I digress.

    Beach has to learn D zone play. He is not near as far along, or at least I don’t think, than Bickell, Dowell (who will be awesome as 4th C), Skille etc. Those guys are pros, Beach is more a Jr. OTOH, he did score well in the AHL playoffs.
    If we sign a Vet D, kiss Beach goodbye and let him learn in the A. Next year is his turn IMO. We’ll see. We have enough sub 1M guys to give a shot that have paid dues.

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