With the departure of goalie Evgeni Nabokov, Shark fans look toward the 2010-2011 season with a measure of trepidation and uncertainty as well as excitement. For those fans who have a sense of doom or fear about the upcoming season, you aren't jumping to conclusions.
It's not every day your hockey team lets the NHL's winningest regular season goaltender the past 3 years walk with no real "replacement."
Nabokov was consistently remarkable during the regular season and a workhorse. Last year he put up a remarkable regular season posting a .922 save percentage; the Sharks allowed the 8th highest shot total in the NHL.
His highlight reel would bring about a bluster of emotions for many fans, myself included. Sadly, there is no happy ending for that movie.
For those looking toward the season with excitement because of the change, you aren't jumping to conclusions either. Fact is, Nabokov did not deliver in the big moments and could not outperform the other goalie when it counted. Some point to a workload issue; some point to defensive lapses; some point to offensive ineptitude when the team needed a goal the most.
Whatever conclusion you come to, the bottom line is this team could not get it done with Nabokov between the pipes.
Think the Sharks organization agreed to that assessment? I'd say so considering they declined to even attempt to retain the Sharks' greatest goaltender. Instead, they replaced him with a grand total of 57 minutes of postseason goaltending experience.
GM Doug Wilson is quoted as moving forward with the team's youth and how much the front office had faith in that youth. This season will be their litmus test as it were, and for some fans it should have come earlier.
If salary was not an issue, Nabokov would almost certainly return in the net for San Jose. Having said that, the money freed up in the front office's decision led directly to the return of Patrick Marleau and last year's postseason performer Joe Pavelski.
Once free agency started the Sharks' intentions were quite clear. They had found their man and signed him without delay.
Enter the Philadelphia Flyer's 1999 sixth-round pick Antero Niittymaki who has never been the workhorse or had a remarkable regular season. While GM Doug Wilson cites his frame and style of play being most desired and best fit in the Sharks' system, Niittymaki enters the 2010-2011 season with more question marks than accolades.
Last year Niittymaki split time with Mike Smith in Tampa Bay and was decent given the poor defense and lackluster special teams play. The Lightning initially did not start poorly however, and after 15 games Niittymaki was among the leaders in the NHL in GAA and save percentage.
Sadly, a bout of injuries, lack of consistent scoring and questionable defensive struggles caused the Lightning to plummet after Thanksgiving. Niittymaki played 49 games winning 21 of them and posted a 2.87 GAA and a fairly pedestrian .909 save percentage. Still, when your best defencemen are Kurtis Foster and Mike Lundin you are leaving a lot to be desired.
Niittymaki shone in the 2006 Winter Olympics. He anchored a highly outmanned Finnish team to a silver medal and recorded three shutouts in six games to win MVP honors. The very same year he played in the IIHF World Championships but had to sit out the qualifying round due to injury. Niittymaki was the third-string goaltender at the Olympics this past year in Vancouver. He saw no action buried behind Lehtonen and Kiprusoff.
That very same season, however, Niittymaki played 52 games for the Flyers but only posted 9 wins and a .894 save percentage along with a 3.38 goals against average in 2006. Ouch.
This past year the Lightning believed Mike Smith was the answer in net, by season's end, even though, Niittymaki had become the more steady of the two. Despite that distinction however, he was still inconsistent, and it is his inconsistencies that have hurt him throughout his career and must be addressed coming into this season.
When Niittymaki is playing well he displays a very calm demeanor and can make the spectacular save look routine, but his career thus far has been up and down to say the least.
If Niittymaki struggles or does not seem to be up to the task, the San Jose Sharks still have 1A/1B goalie Thomas Greiss.
Greiss appeared in 16 games last year while posting a 7-4 record, with a 2.69 GAA and .912 save percentage. Greiss has been a long term prospect whose growth has been stunted by Nabokov's consistent regular season numbers and the front office's desire to win now considering the talent this team has had the past 4 years.
Opinions on the youngster seem to vary from average fan to hockey expert, when pressed for an evaluation of Greiss. When looking back at the Vancouver Games a proponent of Thomas Greiss would be quick to point out his quick and early showing against Team Canada, making some great saves in the first period.
Unfortunately, that would also bring up how Canada proceeded to make quick working of him after the first period. Greiss did have an outstanding save on Sidney Crosby shortly thereafter to hold the lead to 4-0 for Team Germany.
This is, of course, Team Canada you are talking about. Not exactly your average grade NHL player.
Greiss displays a strong desire and has some great mobility for a goaltender, his technique may or may not be good enough. Still, you cannot question the kid's dedication and heart. It's time for him to be the prospect we've all envisioned, the "one day" has now come.
Those others will also point out 2005 4th round draft pick Alex Stalock and his potential, who is building an incredible resume at the AHL level. His penchant for performing in the big game has people talking about what he might also offer the big club.
Let's be realistic here, though. When it comes down to it, this team returns almost everyone from a year ago and can score in bunches. The San Jose Sharks still sport a Team Canada top line and a continued year of Dany Heatley, Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton will only continue to get better.
Elite goaltending is not required for this team's return to the playoffs, but the playoffs is really all this team is about right now. There is no stronger focus than that for this organization.
This season will be the most exciting one in a long time for some fans, and most frightening to others.
What do you think this upcoming season holds?