Cup Trends Suggest More Stalock, Less Niemi

stalock(photo by Dinur Blum)

SAN JOSE- San Jose Sharks head coach Todd McLellan has suggested for a few weeks now that backup netminder Alex Stalock will start more frequently moving forward.

However, despite dominating the opposition all year long to the tune of a .932 save percentage, the Sharks rookie has started just two of San Jose’s last 18 games, (11%).

In fact, for the season, Sharks No. 1 netminder Antti Niemi has started 87% of the games (41 out of 47), which means Stalock has actually played less frequently over the past 18 games than in the previous 29 games. Stalock’s four starts in the first 29 games is about 13%.

Despite the fact that Stalock has been nothing short of spectacular in his two most recent starts—44 saves on 46 shots against Dallas on Dec. 21 and 33 on 35 in Chicago on Jan. 5 (both 3-2 shootout wins)—Stalock is getting the starting nod less and less frequently.

That’s just inconceivable. And it’s not that I dislike Niemi. I don’t. Anyone who knows me personally knows I’m a big Niemi fan.

But I’m also a big Stalock fan and as recent trends suggest, it is important to get adequate rest for the No. 1 and have a No. 2 that hasn’t been rusting away on the bench.

With Niemi starting 87% of the games, the Sharks aren’t getting him the rest that he needs. Of course correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation but it’s worthy of note that every single Cup winning goaltender since the 2004-05 lockout has started fewer than 70 regular season games.

The last goaltender to do it? Arguably the best goaltender in NHL history in Martin Brodeur with the 2002-03 New Jersey Devils.

Currently Niemi is on pace to start 71-72 games. Outside of Jonathan Quick’s 84% start rate in the Los Angeles Kings Cup run, Niemi’s current 87% mark is on average 31% higher than all other cup winning goaltenders since the 2004-05 lockout.

2012-13 Corey Crawford  (62%)
2011-12 Quick (84%)
2010-11 Tim Thomas (67%)
2009-10 Niemi (43%)
2008-09 Marc-Andre Fleury (74%)
2007-08 Chris Osgood (49%)
2006-07 Jean-Sebastian Giguere (64%)
2005-06 Cam Ward (30%)

Since the 2004-05 lockout, we have had eight different goaltenders win Stanley Cups over the eight different seasons. Three of the eight goaltenders weren’t even their teams No. 1 netminder to start the season and four of the eight weren’t considered elite at the time (Ward, Niemi, Osgood, Crawford) and heck these days Fleury isn’t exactly considered a top goalie either.

As mentioned here on Inside Hockey a short while ago, goaltenders are unpredictable. We’ve seen crazy unexpected playoff runs from young and/or unknown goalies on a frequent basis. Jaroslav Halak with the Montreal Canadiens in 2010 and Braden Holtby with the Washington Capitals in 2012 are just a couple of improbable runs that come to mind from the recent past.

Yet despite the fact that there have been all these great playoff runs by unproven goaltenders, including three of the last eight cup winners (or more depending on your definition of unproven), it baffles me to hear people say things like “if the Sharks are going to make a deep playoff run, it will be with No. 31 between the pipes.”

Recent history would suggest that it is very conceivable for the Sharks to make a deep playoff run with No. 32 between the pipes.

If I were Stalock, I would be pissed to hear someone infer that Niemi is absolutely imperative to a deep run for the Sharks. Stalock has long been considered a top prospect for this organization and he’s been absolutely stellar in his first six starts in the NHL.

But at this rate, if something happens to Niemi or if he starts to really struggle in the playoffs, will Stalock be able to continue that phenomenal play on a nightly basis? After starting just 10-12 games all season? Maybe, maybe not. If Stalock does end up having to play every game in the playoffs, I think an extra 10 regular season starts would go a long way for his confidence and the team’s confidence in him. Even if he struggles in extra starts down the stretch, that is still valuable experience to learn from and then come playoffs you could simply argue he’s due for a hot streak. And we’ve all seen how hot goaltenders can carry teams to a Stanley cup.

Again, I’m not arguing a preference towards Stalock over Niemi, but with the recent trends with goaltenders, I’d like to see Stalock get more playing time and more respect from some of the media.

I fail to see the downside in letting Stalock finish the year with at least 20 starts. Doing so keeps both goalies fresh for the postseason run versus possibly having one overworked and the other rusty. I’m a big Niemi fan, but having two goalies playing solid hockey on a frequent basis is better than one. And that’s just the simple math.


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One Response to “Cup Trends Suggest More Stalock, Less Niemi”

  1. MJ Kasprzak
    January 17, 2014 at 4:01 pm #

    You know my position on this—no goalie in the Expansion Era has ever won the Cup playing more than 68 games during the regular season except Martin Brodeur. Hopefully, the fact Stalock played Thursday is an indication he’ll get more than a dozen starts, though I do not think 20 is necessary given Nemo will play only sporadically in Sochi.

    San Jose Sharks Examiner