With the numerous alterations to the San Jose Sharks’ roster this offseason, the Bay Area has had more than its fair share of summer hockey talk. While that talk has dwindled down significantly as of late, well, for you Sharks fans out there, it could be worse – at least you’re not following the Calgary Flames or Ottawa Senators (or many other franchises, for that matter).
Thus far, San Jose’s moves have resulted in a refinement of the top-six, a remodeling of the blue-line and a fundamental philosophy change on the third line. In other words, all transformations have been centered around the skaters. But what about those masked men between the pipes?
Unless an completely out of the blue trade pops up on the horizon, a pair of Sharks’ Finns – Antti Niemi and Antero Niittymaki – will once again split duties in goal for San Jose, but under much different circumstances than a year ago.
Last year, Niittymaki signed on the opening day of free agency, inking a two-year $4 million contract to be the No. 1 netminder. However, aided in part by San Jose’s offer sheet to Chicago defenseman Nicklas Hjalmarsson, Niemi landed in San Jose on a one-year, $2 million contract. With significant cap issues, the Blackhawks had to let a number of players walk – including Niemi – and the Sharks benefited by snatching up the Stanley Cup-winning goaltender to a bargain deal. Niemi and Niittymaki subsequently battled for the starting job.
When all was said and done after last season, Niemi had won the gig as the main man in nets for the Sharks. For the year, Niemi racked up an impressive 35 victories in 60 starts, posting a tremendous .920 save percentage and 2.38 GAA to go along with six shutouts. During the postseason Niemi won another two series, making it six straight series victories to begin his career. That said, Niemi’s overall play in his first postseason with San Jose wasn’t nearly what his regular season projected. His save percentage fell from .920 to just .896.
Obviously with Wilson having re-upped Niemi in the middle of last season to a four-year extension worth $3.8 million per season, Niemi will return as the No. 1 goaltender moving forward, but the question of how San Jose will allocate the minutes between their two Finnish netminders is still unanswered.
Niittymaki, for his part, did shine at times throughout last season. The 12-7-3 record in 22 starts and .896 save percentage aren’t pretty, but the former Tampa Bay Lightning and Philadelphia Flyer goalie did post a .934 save percentage in his first 11 starts last season, during a first half where the Sharks as a whole struggled mightily to find any consistency in their game.
And for what it’s worth, Niittymaki played well in relief of Niemi during the series against the Kings, as he stopped 29 of the 30 shots he faced in two games of action.
Niemi may be the clear-cut go-to goalie between the pipes but Niittymaki certainly won’t be used as infrequently as Thomas Greiss was two years ago behind Evgeni Nabokov… Or could he?
Greiss, who resigned this offseason with the Sharks, started just 11 games in 2009-10 as Nabokov’s backup, but his numbers that season indicated he deserved a few more starts. While the Germany-born netminder was never an elite prospect and hasn’t put together a track record that suggests anything more than what he has been to date in the NHL, he posted a .926 save percentage in those 11 starts. Not to mention, his lone postseason action saw him stop 26 of 28 shots against a Detroit team that had chased Nabokov from the game in the first period. San Jose certainly wasn’t playing their best defense in the remaining 40 minutes, but Greiss held his own.
Considering Greiss got the short-end of the stick a year ago with both Niemi and Niittymaki pushing him out of a roster spot, what will happen with Niittymaki this year?
Obviously the 31-year old goaltender has a much more extensive track record which includes MVP of the 2006 Olympics and 2009-10 NHL season that had numerous Lightning teammates singing his praises.
However, Niittymaki rarely played down the stretch for the Sharks last season. Part of that was due to injury, but Niittymaki did return to the backup role for quite awhile before seeing any action. When he eventually got into a game during a mop-up role against Chicago during mid-March, his admitted post-game that he felt rather uncomfortable.
Between then and the end of the regular season, Niittymaki saw the ice just once more. It would be his first start in nearly three months when he backstopped the Sharks in their 6-2 loss to the Anaheim Ducks on Apr. 6.
A general consensus amongst Sharks followers seems to be that the team will look to get Niittymaki a significant chunk of action during the first half of the season in hopes that if he plays well, he could be effective trade bait at the deadline if another team ends up needing a cheap starting netminder.
On the other hand, in recent years the Sharks have relied heavily on their main man in net. Between Nabokov and Niemi, once they believe in a goaltender, he will play… a lot.
But the question remains whether or not playing their No. 1 goaltender as often as they have in the past has hindered their chances come the postseason. It is no secret that Nabokov’s two best statistical postseason’s came when he started fewer than 60 regular season games. One of those playoffs (2003-04), he led the Sharks all the way to their first Western Conference Finals appearance. Those two postseasons saw Nabokov post save percentages of .935 and .920, with his next-highest postseason save percentage coming in at just .907.
Looking back at the past seven Stanley Cup winning goaltenders, only Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury played over 60 games in the regular season when he started 61 in 2008-09. The others?
Chris Osgood- 40
J. S. Giguere- 53
Future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur is that last goaltender to play more than 61 regular season games and go onto win the Stanley Cup that same season. There is little reason to believe a young goalie like Niemi can’t do the same, but a trend is a trend.
San Jose’s netminding is the least of their positional worries going into the upcoming season as Niemi has proven to be a Stanley Cup caliber netminder, but how they decide to allocate the goaltending minutes remains to be seen and will be worth following throughout the year.