Thursday, February 4, 2010

Are the Blackhawks Looking for an Upgrade at the Goaltending Position?

When I made my pre-season predictions in August for the current NHL season, I believed that the Chicago Blackhawks would take a step back this year. With the emergence of teams like Columbus and St. Louis last season and the loss of number one goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin via free agency during the summer, I thought Chicago would be around the eighth spot in the Western Conference - was I ever wrong on that one... I wondered at the time, could Chicago win with Cristobal Huet as their number one goaltender?

After 56 games, the Blackhawks are second in the Western Conference and 14 points ahead of Nashville in the Central Division. There is little doubt that the Hawks are legitimate Stanley Cup contenders heading into the Olympic break. Their young stars have continued to improve and Huet has provided solid goaltending for most of the season. However, with the trade deadline approaching, rumours continue to circulate that the Blackhawks are looking for help in the goaltending department.

A seventh round pick (214th overall) by the Los Angeles Kings in the 2001 entry draft, Huet came into form during his time in Montreal with the Canadiens. The native of Grenoble France posted some quality numbers with the Canadiens during his three seasons in La Belle Province; winning 58 games in 117 appearances and posting a 2.52 goals against average and a .922 save percentage. He was sent to Washington for a second round draft pick to make room for Carey Price at the trade deadline in 2008.

As good as his numbers were, he would occasionally frustrate fans with his habit of dropping to his knees too early and staying down on the ice when there was time to reposition himself properly for the next shot - a habit he still has on occasion. Despite having Khabibulin under contract last year, Chicago brought in Huet as a free agent during the summer of 2008, signing him to a five-year contract at $5.625 million per year. Huet and Khabibulin split the workload last year; Huet appeared in 41 games, Khabibulin in 42. The “Bulin Wall” had the slight edge statistically and carried the team into the third round of the playoffs, eventually losing to the Detroit Red Wings in the Western Conference Final.

This year, Huet has appeared in 41 games, one off his career high of 42, which he has done twice (2004 with Los Angeles and 2007 with Montreal). His goals against average is a respectable 2.33 and his save percentage is slightly below his average, currently at .902%. In three of his last five starts, Huet’s save percentage was below .875. The low save percentage could be fuelling the trade rumours among Blackhawk fans. In a seven game series, would Huet’s bad habits be exposed? The last thing Chicago management wants is an early exit from the playoffs after last year’s success.

The play of 26-year-old backup goaltender Antti Niemi is certainly giving the Blackhawks something to think about, but are they ready to hand him the reigns for the playoffs? In 18 appearances, Niemi leads the league with a 1.99 goals against average but he was pulled in his last start against Vancouver on January 23rd; allowing three goals on 12 shots in one period of action. After several decent years with the Lahti Pelicans in the Finnish National Hockey League, Niemi signed as a free agent with Chicago in 2008. He is signed through next season at $780,000 and is a restricted free agent after the 2010-2011 season. How would he handle the pressures of the Stanley Cup playoffs - are the Hawks willing to find out by letting him learn on the job?

As for Huet being traded or replaced at the trade deadline this season, one would think his contract would make him un-tradable. However, until last Sunday, everyone in the hockey world thought J.S. Giguere and Jason Blake’s contracts were impossible to move and yet they are wearing different uniforms now.

The problem facing Chicago if they are looking for a change in net is who is available? There are not too many goaltenders in the league that can play a solid 60 games per season and are on the market. These are the kind of questions that keep me up at night, and with the trade deadline officially one month away, I am sure it is keeping some General Managers up at night too...

Photo by Burns! on Flickr

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