Did Hawks err in letting Niemi walk?

SAN JOSE -- San Jose Sharks general manager Doug Wilson will only smile when asked the question, as he was again on Friday before his team took on the Chicago Blackhawks.

In 2010 after the Hawks had won the Stanley Cup, Wilson famously offered Hawks’ defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson, a restricted free agent at the time, a mammoth four-year, $14 million contract. It stunned the Hawks and the hockey world. When Chicago matched it, and subsequently walked away from an arbitration award for goalie Antti Niemi, Wilson scooped up Niemi instead.

Did Wilson know he would get one or the other when he made the offer to Hjalmarsson? It’s a question he’s never answered. The Hawks were up against the salary cap. A fact the entire league was aware of.

“You appreciate good players on teams that have had success,” Wilson said diplomatically Friday morning. “You’re always looking for ways to improve your hockey team. He played outstanding against us.”

Niemi and the Hawks swept a four-game series against the Sharks en route the Stanley Cup in 2010. It was the goaltender’s shining moment. Twice he made 40-plus saves, and Wilson took notice.

“Making the big saves at key times was probably the difference-maker in that series,” Wilson said.

The move to keep Hjalmarsson and let Niemi go is proving larger at the moment due to the Hawks' woes in net and on defense. Mired in a six-game losing streak, could the Hawks have made the wrong decision?

“Not really thinking about it,” Niemi said after practice on Thursday. “It’s a long season. I think they have great goalies, and it’s a long season and they just have to keep working on it.”

As the story goes, Chicago's brass gathered at the organization’s prospect camp in the summer of 2010 with a decision to make.

Days earlier, Wilson had made the offer to Hjalmarsson -- the only offer made to any restricted free agent that offseason. Just days before that, Hawks general manager Stan Bowman said he wasn’t worried about such offers for his restricted free agents. He was wrong.

Instead of potentially paying Hjalmarsson around $1.5 million the Hawks had to decide to commit to him for four years at a steep price or let him sign with the Sharks in return for a compensation package of draft picks.

Ironically, the decision they had to make didn’t revolve around Hjalmarsson. It revolved around their goaltending. Niemi had just come off a glorious playoff run to the Stanley Cup. He was due a raise. The Hawks could not pay Hjalmarsson and Niemi their new salaries. One had to go.

The decision to let Niemi walk was as much about Corey Crawford as anything. Goalie coach Stephan Waite had worked with Crawford since he was drafted by the Hawks in 2003. Many inside and outside the organization believed he would have been the backup to start the 2009-2010 season if not for the fact Niemi had to clear waivers to go to the minors while Crawford did not.

The decision-makers voted in favor of Crawford, which meant Niemi was sent packing as his former team walked away from the arbitration award making him an unrestricted free agent. The Hawks got nothing for the goaltender who won them a Stanley cup for the first time in 49 years. Ironically, weeks later, he signed a one-year deal with those same Sharks and a year after that he signed a huge extension worth $15.2 million.

“He’s a young, developing goaltender,” Wilson said. “If you watch how he plays and the commitment he puts into the game, it’s contagious. People really want to play for guys like that.”

Most of this is well documented, but now fast-forward to 2012. By even the most generous of standards, the Hawks are having goaltender problems. As of this moment it’s still safe to say they haven’t replaced Niemi -- despite a good run by Crawford last season. Currently, the Hawks are 26th in defense in the NHL and 27th in penalty killing. Crawford’s .900 save percentage ranks 41st out of 46 who qualify. His 2.94 goals-against average is 40th. Niemi only ranks 20th and 13th in those categories but the difference is he has a ring and was arguably the best goaltender in the league in the second half of last season.

And last year, Niemi became the fourth goaltender in league history to take two different teams to the conference finals in back-to-back years. The Sharks lost to the Vancouver Canucks in six games.

“It was fun,” Niemi said of his attempt at back-to-back titles. “I wish we could have gone further.”

Did the Hawks make a major mistake in essentially choosing Hjalmarsson and Crawford over Niemi? Winning four rounds in the playoffs is the biggest test in hockey, and Niemi passed it. Hjalamrsson and Crawford have both had their struggles. Hjalmarsson last year, Crawford this season.

The answer to that question has yet to be determined though currently the Hawks defensive situation looks so bleak any alternative is bound to appear better. Niemi says he’s not following the Hawks closely but probably realizes this year’s team defense is nowhere near what he played behind.

“I heard a rumor they’re giving up a lot of scoring chances,” Niemi said.

The former Hawk Wilson, his netminder Niemi and Hjalmarsson are linked through the set of events that took place in the summer of 2010, but it was the Hawks' decision that made it all happen. Was it the right move?

Wilson will only smile.