San Jose Sharks: Could Antti Niemi Become Their Ken Norton Jr.?
The San Jose Sharks have already signed a free agent goalie to replace long time starter Evgeni Nabokov. His name is Antero Niittymaki.
And if you talk to Sharks GM Doug Wilson, he will tell you that the organization has already found "their guy".
But with the news that the Chicago Blackhawks have let their Stanley Cup winning netminder, Antti Niemi, walk as an unrestricted free agent, the thought of seeing him in teal next season is extremely intriguing.
Now, while some fans claim that Niemi looked better than he actually is because of the extremely talented defensive group Chicago had last year, another group of fans is quick to point out that Cristobal Huet struggled in the Blackhawks' net with the same defensive corps.
No matter how good the defense was in front of him, props have to be given to a rookie goaltender who was able to put the following numbers:
Regular season: 26-7-4 record, 2.25 GAA, .912 SV %, seven SHO
That is correct—Niemi posted just as many shutouts as regulation losses.
Conversely, Chicago's prior No. 1 goalie before Niemi took over posted the following regular season numbers:
26-14-4, 2.50 GAA, .895 SV %, four SHO
And remember, Cristobal Huet was suppose to be a top-caliber goaltender who had some good years with Montreal and half a season with Washington before coming over to Chicago.
But Niemi took over and was the backbone for the Blackhawks in their run to the Stanley Cup.
And yet, his team thinks he is too pricey at $2.75M? Ouch, talk about money issues for Chicago if they can't afford to pay their Cup-winning goaltender half of what Nabokov made last season for San Jose.
Speaking of San Jose, where else would be a better landing spot for Niemi?
The Sharks were swept out of the playoffs by Niemi's Blackhawks in the Western Conference Finals last season, and team teal is eager to come back next season and return the favor.
Niemi obviously can't feel very appreciated by his now former club, and joining the Sharks, a team that is arguably the biggest threat to dethrone the defending champs, makes all too much sense.
Remember, if you're a Bay Area sports follower, this type of scenario isn't unprecedented.
Back in 1994, the San Francisco 49ers were coming off a second straight NFC championship loss to the Dallas Cowboys. And with a chance to bring one of Dallas' key contributors over to their team for the following season, the 49ers decided it was a can't miss opportunity.
Eddie Debartolo Jr. and company brought Cowboys stud linebacker Ken Norton Jr. over to play for the 49ers. During the 1994 season, the 49ers ended up beating the Cowboys twice, including in the NFC championship game, en route to winning the franchise's fifth Lombardi Trophy in Super Bowl XXIX.
Ken Norton Jr. was one of the key leaders of that 49er defense and without him, the 49ers might not have been the first NFL team to win five Super Bowls.
Now the Sharks haven't lost two straight Conference finals to the Blackhawks the way the 49ers had lost two straight to the Cowboys, but the analogy holds true nonetheless. A key contributor from the team that ended their title run a year ago is available, and bringing him in could be the answer.
After all, Norton Jr. had the following to say when he came over to the 49ers: "When I finally got here, I realized just how hungry this team was."
In other words, Norton Jr. was impressed by the drive his 49ers' teammates had to get past their demons and get to the top of the mountain. Already having been there, Norton was motivated to stay there and bring his new teammates alongside him.
That said, if Niemi wants to stay on top of the hockey mountain next season, San Jose is the place to be.
Sure, this San Jose team has yet to win the Cup, but like how the 1994 49ers were sick of losing, this Sharks team is sick of losing.
They are sick of having top level talent but not getting the job done.
If Niemi can't be with Chicago, what other team gives him a better chance to win a second straight Stanley Cup, and beat his former employers in the process?
Now, time will tell if the Sharks are going to make a serious run at bringing Niemi aboard. Depending on the cap room available and whether or not they want to bring in another goalie with Niittymaki already signed, they may or may not look into bringing him on. But as a Bay Area fan, it is at least fun to ponder the possibility of Niemi coming over.
And even if the move doesn't come to fruition, looking back at the last Bay Area team to win a championship is never a bad thing.
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