Antero Niittymaki: 8 Possible Destinations for the Sharks Netminder

Simon Cherin-GordonContributor IIIFebruary 2, 2012

Antero Niittymaki: 8 Possible Destinations for the Sharks Netminder

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    At the All-Star Break, I named Antti Niemi as one of ten San Jose Sharks players who needed to step it up down the stretch. He started off his second half with a brilliant shutout against Columbus.

    It was his second straight, and marked his first back-to-back shutouts in almost a year.

    Antero Niittymaki's Sharks career was over immediately after his off-season surgery, or—at the very latest—after Thomas Greiss emerged as an elite back-up. Niemi's recent play simply puts an exclamation point at the end.

    While the Sharks enjoyed having two reliable Fins last season (pun intended), it doesn't make sense to keep both around anymore. Niittymaki would be third on the depth chart, and barring an insanely bad injury bug, would likely never see the ice again in San Jose.

    So, the Sharks put the 31-year-old on waivers.

    While Niittymaki's contract ($2 million, final season) and injury problems make him a liability for the Sharks right now, his skill and track record make him a player worth pursuing for several teams around the league.

    After a rough start to his career, Niittymaki has put up a .907 save percentage over his last four seasons while going 60-42-16. Perhaps the highlight of Niittymaki's career thus far occurred during his two most recent outings—relief appearances in last year's playoffs.

    During round one, Antti Niemi spotted the Los Angeles Kings a 4-0 lead in game three. Niittymaki came in early in the second period, and shut the Kings offense down. Playing with confidence in front of him, San Jose won the game 6-5 in overtime. Two games later, Niemi got pulled midway through the first period after three soft goals, and Niittymaki pitched a shutout the rest of the way.

    With that, Niittymaki showed the league that he is not only a quality goalie, but could be a huge part of a Stanley Cup run.

    Here's a look at eight playoff contenders that should—or at least will—consider claiming the Finnish netminder.

Washington Capitals

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    The Capitals are atop the Southeast division again after spending most of the first half below .500.

    It's also the weakest division in hockey, and if the Panthers win their current game in hand, the Caps would drop from third to ninth in the Eastern Conference.

    After relying on young goaltenders during the last few playoffs, Washington decided to bring in veteran Thomas Vokoun to get them over the top. Vokoun has been excellent, going 20-12-1 with a .915 save pct.

    However, backup Michael Neuvirth has been a liability. His .892 save pct. and 3.08 GAA are not acceptable, and his 6-7-2 record is proof that he isn't cutting it.

    If Washington makes the playoffs, Neuvirth would not get any starts. He's been so much worse than Vokoun, and the team plays worse in front of him. Vokoun, however, is 35, and must continue to get rest down the stretch if he is going to be able to play at a high level this spring.

    The only problem is, Washington can't afford to lose ground while Vokoun rests, because they are in a dogfight just to make the post-season.

    Claiming Antero Niittymaki could give them the quality backup they need behind Vokoun. Neuvirth may still be a future stud, but they'd be wise to think about the present. Niittymaki will be a free agent this summer, and would add what could be some crucial wins down the stretch.

Nashville Predators

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    The Predators are lucky enough to have three of the best defensive players in the NHL.

    First, there's Shea Weber, the best defenseman in hockey.Then there's Ryan Suter, an absolute force that may be a top ten defenseman himself.

    Finally, there's Pekka Rinne, a Vezina finalist last year that may take the trophy home this time around. Rinne is second in the NHL in games played, and you have to go down to ninth on that list to find someone with a better save percentage. (Jonathan Quick).

    OK, so how does adding a goalie help this defensive machine?

    One reason that Pekka Rinne has started 46 games is that Anders Lindback has been dreadful. The Preds are 2-5 in front of Lindback, a far cry from their stellar 29-11-4 mark in front of Rinne.

    Nashville want to make a run this postseason. Although they make the playoffs almost yearly, it wasn't until last season that Barry Trotz's team won a playoff series. This season, they are competing for a division title and potentially a conference championship.

    Like with Vokoun in Washington, no goalie besides Rinne will play this post-season barring injury. But Niittymaki's presence down the stretch could do two huge things for this club.

    For one, he could be more effective than Lindback, thus helping Nashville finish with a higher seed. Secondly, he could allow the Predators to rest Rinne a little more, keeping their all-world talent and invaluable asset fresh for the playoffs.

Toronto Maple Leafs

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    The Leafs have one of the most high-octane offenses in the NHL. Their forwards are stellar, and their defense does a good job moving the puck.

    They are very similar to last year's Tampa Bay Lightning—they're hanging around in the east despite getting shoddy goaltending from every available option. Jonas Gustavsson, James Reimer and Ben Scrivens have been anywhere and everywhere between average and awful this season.

    And we know what Dwayne Roloson did for Tampa. Despite his age, he helped the Lightning make the playoffs, and then caught fire, carrying them all the way to a 1-0 game seven loss in the conference finals.

    After Niittymaki's smaller-scale playoff heroics last year, why not take a chance? He hasn't played this season, so he's fresh. His numbers over the last few seasons are better than those of the three goalies Toronto has used this year. And finally, his contract is expiring after this season, so if he doesn't work out—or even if he does—he'd be a low-risk acquisition.

Ottawa Senators

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    The Senators have a team that Ottawa is excited about right now. And they should be.

    After finishing fifth in the East two years ago, despite being outscored, the Senators inability to keep their goals against down led to a disastrous 2010-11 season. Not to mention their inability to score; their top three scorers last year had 57, 45 and 34 points respectively.

    This season, Ottawa has been unstoppable offensively. They are on pace to finish with 88 more goals than last season. For those too lazy to do the math, that's over an extra goal per game.

    Like most teams on this list, one of the Sens' biggest soft spots is in net. Although Craig Anderson has been much better than he was last season, he has also played the most games in the NHL.

    This doesn't make sense when the next guys on the list are Pekka Rinne, Cam Ward and Mikka Kiprusoff. It'd be one thing if Ottawa wasn't in contention, and asking Anderson to clean up, but it's another when they're asking the capable but less-than-stellar netminder to carry them into the playoffs and beyond.

    Which is what the city of Ottawa expects. They haven't been able to rest Anderson, as backup Alex Auld's 1-3-2 record, .879 save pct and 3.57 GAA aren't even worth analyzing.

    While this may not happen no matter what the Sens do, there are steps they can take to improve their chances. A big one would be to spell Craig Anderson a little bit. If anyone remembers his playoff performance with the Avalanche two seasons ago after a work-loaded regular season, they'll know two things about Anderson.

    The first is that he's capable. He was impossible for San Jose to figure out for four games.

    The second is that he doesn't conserve energy. He played his heart out all season and all series, and by games five and six, he looked gassed.

    If Ottawa wants to pull the kind of upset that Colorado couldn't two years ago, grabbing Antero Niittymaki and resting Craig Anderson down the stretch would be a smart move, or at least one that pleases fans.

Philadelphia Flyers

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    The Philadelphia Goaltender Shuffle has been in full swing ever since Antero Niittymaki left.

    Over the past two and a half seasons, five different goalies have made at least 19 appearances in the net for Philly.

    If that's indecision, get this: in each of the last two post-seasons, the Flyers have played three different goalies.

    There are three main reasons for this. The first is injury. In 2010, Ray Emery's injury forced Brian Boucher to play in the first two rounds. Boucher then suffered an injury which forced in Michael Leighton. The two led them to the finals.

    The second is underwhelming play. The Flyers have arguably the best collection of skaters in the NHL, and after a dominant regular season, they felt they could make another deep playoff run. But neither of the previous year's heroes or rookie sensation Sergei Bobrovski could keep their GAA below 3.13, and that will always spell an early exit.

    So, the Flyers brought in Ilya Bryzgalov this off-season. But the decorated netminder is struggling to find his game. Bobrovski is doing well as the backup, but this brings me to the third reason for the goalie swaps: Philadelphia sports fans.

    Nothing ticks the most demanding fanbase in the NHL off more than management gaffes, or at least lack of effort. Although Bobrovski is playing well, if he chokes again this postseason, Flyer fans will have GM Paul Holmgren's head for not correcting an obvious flaw.

    Should Philly bring back Antero Niittymaki? Maybe, maybe not. On one hand, adding another goalie to the already-hectic situation in net could lead to more job-insecurity among the current netminders, which in turn could lead to less confidence and more playoff struggles.

    On the other hand, being the GM in Philadelphia requires appeasing the fanbase as much as it requires making smart hockey moves, and if Niittymaki comes in—success or failure—at least Holmgren can say he tried.

Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Another former home of Antero's may want to consider inviting him back.

    After a solid 2009-10 season, Niittymaki signed with San Jose, thinking he'd become the starter for a Stanley Cup contender. Tampa thought that Mike Smith and Dan Ellis could get the job done.

    How silly of them both.

    The Sharks ended up with Antti Niemi later that off-season, and Niittymaki ended up as a backup. Tampa Bay, meanwhile, couldn't even squeeze a .900 save pct. out of either of their goalies, and were forced to bring in Dwayne Roloson.

    Of course, the 41 year old led the team into the playoffs and to within one game of the Stanley Cup Finals, two games deeper than the team Niittymaki bolted Tampa forgot.

    This season, both parties again find themselves in unfortunate situations. Niittymaki has not seen and will not see the ice in San Jose this season. Meanwhile, Dwayne Roloson has finally fallen off at age 42, while Mathieu fell off at 30 -- which was four years ago.

    Although the Lightning isn't the team it was last year, it is the winner of five straight, a scary team at home, and the lucky owners of the best healthy hockey player in the world.

    Bringing back Niittymaki could provide them with a Roloson-esque strike of energy. If Niitty plays well, the Bolts could certainly sneak back into the playoffs, and be the last team anybody wants to play.

Chicago Blackhawks

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    The ironies just keep coming.

    The Chicago Blackhawks went on a magical Stanley Cup run two seasons ago. Despite what should have been obvious from watching the games, it was decided that summer that goaltender Antti Niemi was not an integral part of that group.

    OK, they also ran into some very difficult salary cap problems. They were forced to not only part with Niemi, but other playoff heroes such as Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, and Kris Versteeg.

    Regardless of the reason, they may regret their decision now. Niemi went to Conference-foe San Jose, where he almost kept Chicago out of the playoffs by beating them three out of four times. He then proved that his playoff success was not due to a hot streak but rather a mean streak, as he led the Sharks to the Conference Finals with more clutch post-season play.

    The Hawks replacement, Marty Turco, was an utter disappointment. The veteran promptly lost his job to rookie Corey Crawford. Although Crawford had a great season and did all he could come playoff time, he hasn't fared so well in year two.

    Chicago, to their credit, has been patient with the youngster. Despite a .902 save pct, a 2.86 GAA, and a significantly worse winning pct. than backup Ray Emery, the Hawks still consider Crawford their starter.

    But if they want to win a championship, they may be skating on thin ice. Not only has Crawford struggled this year, he hasn't even been streaky. That doesn't bode well if they are expecting him to get hot come playoff time.

    Meanwhile, Emery played his first six playoff games in four years last season, in which he barely gave his team a chance to win.

    Although Chicago can't get Niemi back, their former star has provided them with an indirect gift: a chance to pick up a quality goalie off waivers.

    Could Chicago sit on their youngster and quality backup and not be criticized? Absolutely. Should a team with this much potential not assess their cup probability with these two in net and not do whatever they can to improve their chances? That all depends on where they want to end up this season.

Detroit Red Wings

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    If any team in the NHL is in "win now" mode, it's the Detroit Red Wings.

    The Wings have one of the oldest rosters in the league. They also have one of the deepest and most skilled. But that doesn't mean that time is running out for Nick Lidstrom, Todd Bertuzzi and Co.

    As of right now, they sit atop the Western Conference. Although the San Jose Sharks have their number and the Vancouver Canucks can out-skate them, no one wants to play a best-of-seven against Detroit in which the Wings have home-ice advantage.

    That being said, this group is running out of time. Any major injuries will not lead to a "wait til next year" mentality, but rather could close the window far too tight. This means that Detroit must make sure that—no matter what—they are deep enough to withstand injuries this spring.

    At the top of the "indispensable" list are Pavel Datsyuk and Lidstrom. After that, it's goaltender Jimmy Howard.

    The former Calder Trophy runner-up has bounced back in a big way from his sophomore slump, and looks better than ever. He is and NHL-best 31-11-1, with a stellar .925 save pct, 2.01 GAA, and five shutouts.

    After Howard, there's nothing.

    Backup Ty Conklin has gone 3-5-1, which is even worse looking when you compare it to Howard's record. As are his .886 save pct. and his 3.20 GAA.

    If Jimmy Howard goes down, the Wings have zero chance of winning a cup this year, and their chances with their current unit will go down next season. That's where Antero Niittymaki comes in.

    The best goalie on waivers is also the best thing that could happen to Detroit. Niittymaki is not only vastly better than Conklin, but he has the potential to play nearly to Howard's level for stretches. It's unlikely that he could keep it up an entire post-season, but say Howard had to miss a couple weeks—Niittymaki could get the job done.

    And for a team in "win now" mode, Niitty's expiring contract is perfect. The Wings can seek a better backup than Conklin this off-season. Whether or not Niittymaki is the best option then, he certainly is now.

    The Wings should know this. Detroit has the best front-office in the league, which is why they went after Evgeni Nabokov last year. They may not be seeking a potential replacement for Howard this time around, but they should still do everything they can—essentially put in a waiver claim—to claim this year's best available former Sharks netminder.