Blackhawks

Hawk Talk: Antti answers the call

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Hawk Talk: Antti answers the call

Wednesday, May 26, 2010
11:39 PM

By Brett Ballantini
CSNChicago.com

CHICAGO Its easy to envision a future Deadspin lead story, one about an ascendant superstar goalie who sneaks up on the NHL and sets it on its ear, all the while never informing his parents or friends in Finland how hes finding his fortune in the United States.

As ludicrous as it sounds, Antti Niemiand apparently, his friends and familyis so even-keeled, such a story might just be true, and that for all anyone knows back home, hes simply found consistent work as a house painter or electrician and isnt a young man four wins from backstopping his way to a Stanley Cup, and turning the longest Cup drought in the NHLs books today soaking wet.

No, Im not really talking to anybody in Finland, Niemi said. My friends dont really want to mess me up, they want to keep me focused. Even my parents, we just talk about regular things, not hockey.

While this may stun those of us who would be sneaking excited phone calls or texts from the dressing room during intermissions during such a stellar playoff run, Niemi seems to have found the antidote to anxiety. Hes the coolest customer in the dressing room who just happens to man the most nerve-wracking position.
I just move on to the next thing, good or bad, Niemi said. A goal, I focus about the next puck. A save, I focus on the next puck. A win, I focus on the next game.

Maybe some of it has to do with Niemis expectations for the season. Back in September, there were none. I was just trying to make the team, he said of his battle for the backup role with the preordained No. 2, Corey Crawford.

His teammates didnt exactly welcome himhe was mostly an unknown, after all. His halting English didnt make matters much easier, although veteran netminder Cristobal Huet, himself a non-native English speaker, made life easier for the young backstop. He formed a fast bond with a fellow young Scandinavian player, defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson.

Niemi tossed a shutout in his first start of the season, the Blackhawks second game of the year, in front of his home fans in Helsinki (the netminders hometown of Vantaa is a suburb of the Finnish capital). Every time out, if he wasnt getting better, he was certainly proving himself an NHL-caliber goalie.

He just kept putting great performances in the books for us, Blackhawks defenseman Brian Campbell said. Through a variety of challenges, he came out looking good.

All year, Anttis had our backs, Chicago center Dave Bolland said. We know hes going to take care of us.

In reality, the starting job was never Niemis to win, but Huets to lose. As the veteran struggled, treading water all season, Niemi continued to grow and learnand occasionally put on a mind-boggling performance, like his 1-0 shutout in Vancouver over the Canucks on Nov. 22, a 2-1 overtime win in Pittsburgh vs. the Penguins on Dec. 5, or a 4-3 shootout win in Detroit to upend the Red Wings on Jan. 21.

Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville has described Niemi in a number of colorful and awestruck ways, the best of which is the strangely appropriate laid-backish. The mentor has consistently praised the rookies demeanor, and unflappability.

His presence has been key for us, Quenneville said. Hes done pretty much whatever weve asked of him. His consistency, his ability to repeat success and eliminate mistakes, has contributed to his confidence and we on the team benefit from that.

Interestingly, the least experienced player on the active roster is one of the most calm and confident, even as the games increase in tension and payoff.

I am feeling more confident than ever, Niemi admits, with some goading. But that is the sort of thing that I put away, right away.

The budding star has also admitted during this playoff run that hes aware hes becoming an elite NHL goaltender. But again, such thoughts are stored away. Ill think about that in the summer, he said. Until then, it doesnt matter anyway.

One of the simple gifts of this storied Chicago season has been watching this backstop blossom, slowly gaining confidence, both on the ice and in dressing room interviews. Seeing him chat with a reporter in his native tongue while in Vancouver, this reticent and stoic player suddenly grinning widely and gesturing in all manner of Jimmie Walker and John Belushi, was revelatory.

The young fella is no different from any of us, aside from making his living off of beating back rubber slabs shot his way at upwards of 100 mph, and bringing a little Clint Eastwood braggadocio to the ice as he flips the pucks back at the offense as if to ask if thats all its got.

Its rare that the unflappable Finn flops on the ice, and barely more so hell even admit to any tension. Those times, you have to bronze and store away, like when Niemi talks about how hard it is, win or lose, to get to sleep after a game, replaying it over in his mind. Likewise when he admitted that Game 3s overtime period vs. the San Jose Sharks was so tense I didnt even realize right away the game was over after Dustin Byfugliens game-winner, or that after Big Buffs eventual game-winner in Game 4 Niemi couldnt even recall how much time was left on the clock (10 minutes? Three minutes? I cannot even remember, but I was hoping the clock would go much faster.).

There are even those moments of awe, where you wonder whether any of this has sunk in on Niemi, who admitted in full candor that Ive dreamed of the Stanley Cup since I was seven, but that dream seemed too far away to even be a dream.

Well, Niemi is certainly living that dream today. And, Mr. or Mrs. Niemi back in Vantaa, if youre reading, your son isnt a successful plumber or painter herehes manning the pads and saying NO! to the best Blackhawks opponents the NHL has to offer.

Brett Ballantini is CSNChicago.com's Blackhawks Insider. Follow him @CSNChi_Beatnik on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Hawks information.

2019 Blackhawks development camp: Day 3 thoughts and takeaways

2019 Blackhawks development camp: Day 3 thoughts and takeaways

GM Stan Bowman and head coach Jeremy Colliton met with the media before Wednesday's on-ice session to discuss a variety of prospect-driven topics.

Here are some of the highlights from their availability, in addition to thoughts and takeaways from Day 3 of Blackhawks development camp at Fifth Third Arena:

1. What the Blackhawks are looking for this week

It's easy to get caught up in prospect camp and put stock into on-ice performances, but that's not what the Blackhawks are doing this week. In fact, the on-ice portion is just a fraction of what these players have on the agenda.

"The big thing for us is to watch these kids, how much they can absorb," Bowman said. "We're throwing a lot of information. These are long days for them to have. Seminars in the morning then they come over and do on-ice work, then they do off-ice work and at the beginning of the week we have a cooking demo for them to learn how to prepare food. So at the end of the day it's a full day for them."

Colliton also brought up a valid point about prospects being at different stages in their summer training. Some players are skating for the first time since their seasons ended and are shaking off some rust. Some have already been training for months. Some players had long years because of deep postseason runs. So yeah, this week is not about evaluation.

"We gotta be careful," Colliton said. "This is a snapshot. At training camp and Traverse City it’ll be a much easier job to evaluate how close anyone is."

2. Early impressions of Kirby Dach

The Blackhawks did extensive research on Dach before drafting him No. 3 overall. On the ice, off the ice, analytics, you name it. But they're finally able to spend some time with him under their own roof and see his habits, how he carries himself, etc. and the early impressions are strong from the coaching staff and management.

"It's hard not to notice his skill level," Bowman said. "He's a big guy but he's got really soft hands, he's got that long reach and he's got a quick stick. He's pretty tricky with the puck. He's got the ability to hold it out so that guys can't poke it away and if they try to get it he can pull it through. He's got quick hands. And I think that's what you notice. He skates well for a big guy.

"These are all things that we liked about him when we drafted him but when you get him here and put him up against guys that are a couple years older, he's able to do some special things with the puck. He's got all the excitement to be on the ice, he's a competitive kid, he's focused, but he's enjoying himself and he's got a combination of attributes that we wish everybody had."

Said Colliton: "It’s tough not to notice him out there. Big, big kid who skates really well, got a lot of skill, makes a lot of things happen out there and seems to have a great work ethic and be a great kid. ... He’s been impressive, for sure."

3. Adam Boqvist turning pro?

When we talked to him on Monday, Boqvist made it known that he wanted to turn pro as quickly as possible and felt ready for it after one season in the OHL with the London Knights. And it seems like the management group is ready for that to happen, also.

"We're probably leaning towards that," Bowman said. "I don't know that we've made any declarations that's what he's going to do. In talking to Adam I think he wants to take that next step. It's probably looking like that, but nothing's been determined for sure."

4. Blackhawks accepting of Ian Mitchell's decision

After his sophomore season at Denver, Mitchell had a decision to make: turn pro or return to college for another year? 

The Blackhawks felt like he was ready to take the next step. Perhaps Mitchell felt so too, but returning to school for one more season, in his eyes, allows him to hone his craft even more and become a better all-around, consistent player before making the jump. That's why he made the decision to go back for one more season, and the Blackhawks are accepting of that.

"You got to give him credit," Bowman said. "He feels like there's unfinished business and I think he's committed to the team and committed to his teammates. He wants to lead that team and he wants to be, in his words, a difference-maker every night. I thought he had a great season last year and selfishly we think he's ready to be a pro. On the other side of it, you got to be where you are. So if he feels the right place for him is Denver then you want to be committed to that and you want him to lead that team and you want him to continue to improve.

"I think what we're looking for him to do is build on that and become a dominant player like he wants to be. Yeah, we would love to have him as a pro right now but I think he's going to be a pro pretty soon. So let him focus on his path. He has to believe in what he's doing and it's not for us to try to talk him in and out of things. Wherever he is, we're going to support him. But he's ready to be a pro right now. With a year in college as a dominant player he'll be even more ready to be a pro."

5. Looking for the next Collin Delia?

The Blackhawks brought six goalies to development camp. Two of them are draft picks — Dominic Basse and Alexis Gravel. The other four are here on invites: Devin Cooley, Stefanos Lekkas, Mareks Mitens and Zackarias Skog. They don't have to look far to see that an impressive showing could turn into a contract.

This is exactly how Delia caught the attention of the Blackhawks.

"We did this a couple years ago with Collin Delia and now look where Collin is," Bowman said. "I think that's the message to these players is you're here for a reason because we think you've got skill and potential as a goalie, and we want to see how you perform this week, how do you take feedback, what's your work ethic like and then we're going to follow them.

"It's not out of the realm that a couple years from now these guys could become Blackhawks. They're not all going to fall into that category but if they show well and they impress us, I think Collin came back two years in a row and then we signed him so these guys are here to try to impress us and show us that they could become Blackhawks."

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Jeremy Colliton on Blackhawks offseason additions and how he plans to handle Crawford-Lehner workload

Jeremy Colliton on Blackhawks offseason additions and how he plans to handle Crawford-Lehner workload

It's mid-July and the Blackhawks' roster looks very different from when it ended the 2018-19 season. GM Stan Bowman has added an influx of new faces this summer, whether that's been in the form of trades or free-agent signings.

Now it's up to Jeremy Colliton and his coaching staff to decide how they want to map out the lineup. They might have an idea of how they want to utilize specific players, but the real competition starts in training camp and that's exactly what the organization wants.

"Yeah, we’ve done a lot," Colliton said before Wednesday's on-ice session at development camp. "We’ve really increased the depth in our group, everywhere. In goal, on defense, up front, we have competition throughout the roster for roster spots, for roles. I think we have more versatility to our team, we have defenders who can play either side, we have guys who want to kill penalties and defend and take that role, we have forwards who can play different positions, kill penalties, play against good players. So we feel that’s what we were missing to our team."

"We’ve added a little bit of physicality and an edge, which we need to have that dimension. We have to win games in different ways, and I think if you compare the roster now to the one we ended with or the one we had when I first came in November, I think we can win in different ways and we’re prepared to have an excellent season, hopefully."

One of the main storylines to follow during the 2019-20 season will be how the goaltending workload is divided between Corey Crawford and Robin Lehner. You have a two-time Stanley Cup winner and Vezina Trophy finalist to share the starts with, and Colliton expects it to be a healthy battle among the two veteran netminders.

"There's going to be competition, certainly," Colliton said. "But I think you look at the teams that have had success, there has been a share — some sort of split. It's not 60, 70 games one guy's taking. Those games that maybe traditionally the backup is playing, we need to win those too. So now whoever is in the net, we're going to get an extremely high level of performance. And if we happen to be unlucky with injuries, we have some protection there too."

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