Photo: Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The battle for the backup goaltender job with the Blackhawks this pre-season was the most anticipated contest at camp. That is, until Brandon Saad came along and played like he wanted his locker next to Jonathan Toews for the season. He may yet get his wish. But that’s another story.

Much ballyhooed rookie goaltender Alexander Salak came into camp with a phalanx of very vocal supporters, clamoring from any soap-box that they could find that the kid was “ready.” But the Blackhawks invited veteran netminder Ray Emery for a tryout anyhow. On Monday that battle came to an end when Emery signed a one-year contract and Salak was demoted to Rockford.

Did Salak “lose” the starting job to the enigmatic (and frequently problematic) veteran Emery? Was there ever a competition to begin with, or did the team just want to give the appearance of actually considering Salak when their intention was to sign Emery all along? A lot of fans are crying “foul,” believing that Salak was the better of the two goaltenders in the pre-season, and didn’t deserve the fate handed to him.

Here’s how I view the situation looking back at it now: the Blackhawks were left with two unpleasant choices after Friday’s loss to Pittsburgh, and they chose the least unpleasant of the two.

Let’s start with this, before the Alexander Salak fans go ape-shit: Ray Emery needs work. When Marty Turco showed up in Chicago, not only were his best days behind him, the shadow of his former self was already getting fitted for a motorized scooter.

That’s not the case with Ray Emery. You can see the goalie that he used to be when he plays — we just need to find a way to coax it out again. I suspect that sometime this season, hopefully sooner rather than later, we’ll get him back to form. But he is not there yet, and his performance in the pre-season showed that. In fact, the Turco-esque blue line foray towards oblivion that ended with the puck in our net should have been enough evidence for anyone.

Would I take Turco over Emery? I said recently that I would. I guess I need to revise that. At this point — notice I’m emphasizing THIS POINT –Turco is the better goaltender. But there’s a 50% chance that Emery will get better. There’s a 0% chance that Turco will. So, that’s the difference there.

Anyhow, Alexander Salak. The people that had seen him play, or seen the video highlight reel in far more cases than not, were VERY adamant that the kid was ready for the NHL. They claimed he has the potential to be a number-one goaltender, and he was ready for a backup job immediately.

I am here to tell you, that is simply not the case. Salak has fundamentals issues that put him at about 80%. His up-and-down speed is slow. He commits too early. He doesn’t use his size to cover the top part of the net when he drops to the butterfly. And he sometimes moves from post-to-post on his knees — a big no-no.

Salak fans and supporters can yell, scream, carry on, bitch and moan, be my guest. What I’ve just stated is the plain and simple truth, and I’m confident that Stephane Waite will back me up 100%. The kid needs some work. Not a lot, but some. That’s the primary reason that Salak is in Rockford right now.

The other reason is, disappointingly, a numbers game. The Blackhawks have drafted very poorly at this position, and as of right now, there is precisely *nobody* in the system behind Salak that can, or ever will, be an NHL goaltender. I’ve seen them all play, and every one of them will top out at the AHL, if they even get that far. We’re *very* shallow in net at the moment.

What does this have to do with Salak? Everything. It’s the main reason Ray Emery was invited to camp at all. Your backup goaltender is your insurance policy, and the reason you get an insurance policy is on the assumption that you will have to use it tomorrow.

“Tim, you aren’t making sense.” Let me explain. And in the following paragraph I will also demonstrate why my colleague Jeff is wrong about the battle for the backup goaltender spot not mattering (sorry, dude…).

October 7, 2011, 7:45pm, Dallas, TX. Adam Burish loses and edge and crashes into Corey Crawford, causing a femur fracture and displaced L2 vertebra for Crawford. He’s out for the season, and all of a sudden you need your insurance policy. How important is that backup goaltender now? He’s the most important guy on the team, end of discussion. And who is the second-most important guy on the team? The goaltender that they pull in from Rockford (!!!) to help the newly-crowned starter carry the load. And no, smart-ass, the Blackhawks would *not* just go acquire a new starting goaltender for the year. You don’t go shopping while you’re desperate, unless you want to get ripped off.

The Blackhawks knew this going into camp. They knew that having a 1- 2 combo in the Indian Head sweater wasn’t enough; they had to have a number-3 in Rockford who could potentially step up in the event of an injury to either 1 or 2. Salak could not handle starting duties if they handed them to him, which is why they invited Emery to camp in the first place. Handing starting duties to a goaltender who isn’t ready is a sure way to destroy their confidence and break them for good.

So unless Emery came to camp and was re-injured, or he simply let the pucks fly by him while demonstrating the proper technique for doing purl for intarsia in the round, the backup job was pretty much his to lose. Stan Bowman decided that he needed an insurance policy with more experience, and he felt that Emery was the best option. Sorry, Salak fans…

Okay, so there it is. Fair, not fair, doesn’t matter; it’s the way it is. I guess the upside for Alexander Salak is this: next year at this time, he will likely be moving into his new apartment in Wicker Park, while Ray Emery will be calling his agent asking why he thinks nobody is calling back.

So as I said before, the Blackhawks had two unpleasant choices: fill the backup slot by signing Ray Emery, who had what can charitably be called an uninspiring debut during pre-season; or hand the reins to Salak, who (arguably) played better but was technically and mentally not ready to handle the job, and leave the cupboard completely bare in Rockford.

Hopefully now it is easier to see why the Blackhawks did what they did, and with luck this will be the first year in recent memory *without* a starting goaltender debate plaguing us all year long.

Of course, that’s what we said last year. And the year before…

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