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Blackhawks Mon Oct 04 2010

Turco gives Hawks new angle in net

As the clock winds down to the start of the Hawks Stanley Cup defense Thursday night at 9 p.m. against the Colorado Avalanche (Versus, WGN Radio), it's time to begin examining what the wholesale changes mean for the Hawks' chances this season.

Starting today, Tailgate offers the first of a 3-part preview leading up to Thursday's face-off. We'll begin between the pipes and work our way forward.

First things first, though it's already been discussed to death this summer...was Antti Niemi one of the reasons the Hawks won the Cup last year? Sure. Do I think he has the goods to be a bonafide NHL starter? I do. Was there any feasible way for the Blackhawks to meet the arbitration price of $2.75 million, let alone the higher price Niemi was asking for, and not make the team worse up front? Not that I was ever able to find, and I spent a lot of time this summer on Cap Geek.

Fact is, adding Marty Turco at $1.3 million for a year is more valuable to Chicago than Niemi and his 64 career starts (regular season and playoffs) would have been even at the $2 million Antti ended up getting from San Jose. Throw in shipping off Cristobal Huet to Switzerland and finally giving Corey Crawford a shot in the big leagues, and the Hawks changes in net, while major, are bigger for what else they allowed general manager Stan Bowman to do this summer.

But enough about money, what matters is on the ice, and Turco's puckhandling abilities and track record provides an upside the Hawks have rarely seen from their goalies. Huet and Niemi were both downright scary handling the puck, but Turco has the skating speed to not only reach pucks those two couldn't, he also has the passing ability to catch forecheckers in deep and spring the Hawks for odd-man breaks. It's a dimension that, combined with the Hawks defensive speed up front, will prevent opponents from being able to dump the puck and aggresively pursue, a weakness that was exploited often last season. Though sometimes Turco can be too overconfident in his puckhandling, a few errors won't affect how much of a difference this can make, and how well it fits in with the Hawks overall speed and offensive prowess. If it's possible for a goalie to make an offense better, this is a textbook case.

Turco's no slouch in net either, though his best days are probably behind him at age 35. Turco posted a 22-20-11 record last season in Dallas with a 2.72 goals against average, but the Stars defense in front of him was porous. Dallas has missed the playoffs the past two seasons in the midst of an overhaul and ownership changes, and though Turco's stats were down, they were a reflection of the entire organization that crashed after reaching the conference finals in 2008. So long as the Hawks are able to limit shots as they did last season, Turco should have no problem posting numbers closer to his career averages of 2.31 goals against and a .911 save percentage; so far this preseason, he's shown that despite the occassional soft goal, he's got the goods to compete.

Meanwhile, long-time prospect Corey Crawford finally gets to move up from Rockford into the backup slot, and with the departure of Niemi, the 25-year-old's goalie of the future status appears to be cemented. Though coach Joel Quenneville made a habit of switching goaltenders often last season, Turco will probably get the majority of the starts, with Crawford working his way into 15-20 games. The Blackhawks have been high on Crawford for a long time, and this season he'll finally get a shot to prove he's ready to step into a full-time starter role in a year or two.

While it's always easy to look toward the net when something good or bad happens, the Hawks victory last year, and their chances this year, will matter a lot more with what's happening in front of the blue paint, then who's within it.

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