Today, Chicago Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman announced that he was walking away from the arbitration award given to his Cup-winning netminder Antti Niemi. In his place, Bowman signed NHL veteran Marty Turco to a one year, $1.5MM contract. The move, which was forced by the Blackhawks severe cap issues, is one that's gained significant media attention. In that media frenzy many have suggested that the Sharks, now without netminder Evgeni Nabokov, will pursue Niemi heavily.
I just don't see it happening.
I get the media's interest in such a move. Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson, after his team was eliminated at the hands of Niemi and Blackhawks in the Western Conference Finals, made a play for restricted free agent Niklas Hjalmarsson. Although many tried to play the "revenge" angle, it was simply a shrewd move by a shrewd general manager; he tried to pry a young, skilled defenseman that fit a team need from a team dealing with cap issues. Those were Wilson's motives, plain and simple. Rubbing salt in Chicago's cap wounds was simply an added bonus. Here's a direct quote from Hjalmarsson's agent, Kevin Epps, which restates Wilson's motives for signing Hjalmarsson:
"From San Jose's point of view, they really liked the fit and decided to really try to get that player. I think the whole process was to get the player, it wasn't to screw the other team - which I don't think happens regularly, but sometimes that's what ends up happening. The case here is (the Sharks say) we need a player to fill Rob Blake's shoes and we had this amount of money to add him to the core group. Let's do it. I think it was thought through a lot more than sometimes the other ones are."
Which is why the notion that Wilson made the offer simply to put Chicago further into cap troubles is ridiculous. Wilson has consistently proved himself as responsible with the cap; we all may question some of his signings, but give the man credit for having a plan and sticking with it. He saw defense as a team need, and tried to take advantage of Chicago's situation. Any conspiracy theory past that point has no legs. I can guarantee that he didn't have Niemi in mind when he offered the money to Hjalmarsson, and I doubt that signing Niemi will be anything more than a quickly passing notion. He may kick the tires, but he's won't be driving the car off the lot.
There's a few reasons why I don't think Wilson will bite on Niemi. Although Evgeni Nabokov was given his walking papers earlier this offseason, the Sharks went out on the very first day of free agency and signed their starter, Antero Niittymaki. Although Niittymaki hasn't proven himself as a bona fide number one, Wilson's comments after signing the Finnish goalie suggests a real faith in Niittymaki to get the job done.
"We didn't waste a lot of time, because I knew there were other teams who were interested, and I wanted him to know how serious we were about him. He was the first guy on our list, and we had decided that as a staff maybe 10 days ago, maybe two weeks. There were other guys we thought about, but he was at the top of our list."
In Niittymaki, the Sharks got the player they wanted. Why then, would they now go after Niemi? If they truly wanted Niemi from the beginning, wouldn't they have made the offer to him, instead of Hjalmarsson or Niittymaki? Yes, they would have. With Niittymaki now in teal, and Thomas Griess proving that he's a capable NHL backup in limited time last year, the Sharks have their goaltending tandem. The only option now, if Wilson was indeed interested in Niemi, would be to move Greiss back to the minors and sign Niemi to split time with Niittymaki. That's also not going to happen.
Although the Sharks haven't won the cup their history, Wilson has consistently modeled his squad after cup winning teams. After Detroit won he tried to get tougher. After Pittsburgh won he brought in more skill and speed. Now, after Chicago has won, he's made defense and affordable goaltending his focus.
"If you look at the trends in this league the last four or five years in particular and the dollars that are dedicated to that position, teams are having success with lower-paid goalies. If you're dedicating $5 [million] or $6 million, that's coming out of somewhere else."
If Wilson were to sign Niemi, it would push the Sharks above the threshold Wilson set for himself earlier in the offseason. And, even though the team is relatively set for next year, the GM likely wants another defenseman and a penalty killing forward to replace the loss of Manny Malhotra to Vancouver. There are other needs, and a contract for Niemi would make any other move practically impossible. The just over four million dollars in cap space is a welcome thing to a Sharks team who was up against the cap all last season. It's unlikely they give up that space to fill anything other than a position of need.
The one point I haven't even brought up is that I don't even believe that Niemi is that skilled of a goaltender. His save percentage in the playoffs was identical to his .910 save percentage in the regular season. He was prone to frequent struggles, and benefitted from an amazingly strong defensive corps. I'm not confident that he's worth the $2.75MM he was awarded.
As fun as it is to think of Wilson as a scheming, conniving, backstabbing GM who pulled the old switcheroo on Chicago, the theory just doesn't have any legs. Like it or not, Wilson and his team of scouts picked Niittymaki as Nabokov's successor in San Jose. If Niittymaki falters, maybe we look back and say that Wilson made a mistake. But in actuality, it's the weakness of the current defensive unit that will be the Sharks undoing, not the failure to sign Niemi.