2011-12 San Jose Sharks: Antti Niemi Report Card
With management and coaching evaluations out of the way, the next step in the analysis of the San Jose Sharks is each player. Having covered the team's best player on the blue line and at forward, it seems only natural to examine its best goalie.
While Thomas Greiss competed and even bested Antti Niemi in certain statistical categories, there was no doubt Nemo was the team's go-to goalie.
Like the rest of the players, I will identify the good, the bad and the ugly truth for Nemo: Should he be part of next year's roster and what would the team need to get in return if they let him go?
(Note: Nemo's ranking in various statistical categories compares him exclusively with goalies possessing more than a dozen starts.)
Antti Niemi is a character guy, accountable and with high expectations for his play. There are no known incidents with any of the players or coaches with either the San Jose Sharks or Chicago Blackhawks.
That is why at just 28 he should continue to get better. Yet he also has the experience of winning a Stanley Cup in 2010 and is 25-19 (.568 point percentage) in the playoffs with six series wins to just two losses. Even with the Sharks, he has won as many as he has lost (two).
He has played well enough in each series to give his team a chance to win. Despite a 1-4 record in the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs, he had an acceptable 2.45 GAA and .914 save percentage considering the Sharks penalty kill struggles.
In the spring of 2011, he was arguably the hottest goalie in the NHL. He played in 37 of 38 games, giving up just over two goals per game and saving about 93 percent of the shots he faced. He backstopped the Sharks from the bottom third of the Western Conference standings to the second seed.
Nemo also logged a lot of minutes (seventh most in the NHL), showing he has the confidence of the coaching staff and can handle a heavy workload, playing in the team's final 26 games and having two shutouts, a 2.20 GAA and a .923 save percentage to finish behind only eight NHL goalies in wins.
Antti Niemi is relatively unproven. In his Stanley Cup-winning season, he was the backup for half the season. As a result, he played in fewer than 40 games during the regular season.
The next season, he started slowly for his new team, the San Jose Sharks. If not for an injury to Antero Niittymaki, he may never have taken hold of the top netminding role.
While he was incredible down the stretch last season, he was not very good in the playoffs. Thus, when he started the season unable to play and had to use games that mattered as his training camp, he struggled.
The Sharks had to be wondering if they made the right move when they signed him to a five-year, $18 million extension during the 2010-11 season. Even after he settled in he continued to struggle. Much like the rest of the team, he was quite good in brief stretches and did not play well enough between them.
He was in the bottom half of the league in goals allowed despite the Sharks being among the stingiest in allowing shots on goal because of puck possession and shot-blocking. Obviously, this gave him a poor save percentage (.915 was 25th in the NHL). He also has just a 9-13 playoff record as a Shark.
The Ugly Truth
Late last week, I wrote about what assets Rick Nash would bring to the San Jose Sharks.
It is quite possible that Antti Niemi is the only movable player that the Columbus Blue Jackets would want in return. For that reason, he is the single most likely player to be moved in a deal that still probably wont happen.
According to Darren Dreger of the NHL Network (h/t Brian Compton of NHL.com), when the teams spoke at the trade deadline, Columbus wanted Logan Couture.
That is too high a price—Couture might be a better two-way player right now, and is a few years younger. It shows the Jackets want top young talent. While the asking price may go down, the Sharks do not have much young talent to give up.
Columbus' best season came when Steve Mason won the Calder Trophy and was talked about as the next great goalie. It took them about three years of him floundering to give up on him, and a new goalie with low mileage might be more enticing than the older forwards the Sharks are willing to part with.
However, the Sharks should be leery of trading their top goaltender. His cap figure is only 13th in the league, and while there are plenty of Steve Masons out there, a flash-in-the-pan goalie almost never is bright enough before burning out to win the toughest trophy in sports.
Clearly if the team had believed in Thomas Greiss, he would have been out there more and would be paid more than $587,500. I think he might be able to be a starting goalie in the NHL, but teams looking to win now should not rely on players with fewer than 20 career starts.
More than likely, the Sharks would have to sign a solid veteran for about half of what Nemo is being paid and hope he is at least as good. Thus, there would be little cap relief considering Nash's monumental contract.
Worse, they would have to give up more than Nemo for Nash. Without many prospects or draft picks to throw in, the Sharks would have to sacrifice more skating talent to make it happen, and they may not gain anything at all from such a trade.
That is why odds are he will remain a Shark, even if they are still lower than most of the remaining roster.