Just over one week has passed since the somewhat surprising news broke that the San Jose Sharks had signed former Chicago Blackhawk goaltender Antti Niemi to a one-year, $2 million deal.
Coupled with the signing of Antero Niittymaki in the early hours of free agency this July, that deal replaced the $6 million paid to Evgeni Nabokov in 2009-2010 with $4 million in committed money in net for 2010-2011. It also calls into question the future of German prospect Thomas Griess, who served the team as designated No. 2 last season, but was expected to play a larger role this season.
At the time of the signing, goaltending was not the top concern on a team that, barring the loss of Evgeni Nabokov and veteran defenseman Rob Blake, had remained largely unchanged since falling to the Blackhawks in four straight games in June's Western Conference Finals.
That series exposed the vulnerabilities of the Sharks' blue line, a unit that has only regressed with Rob Blake's retirement.
Many expected a high-profile trade to materialize before the start of the season to bring in a top-caliber defenseman. This fueled speculation that Niemi could be part of a sign-and-trade deal, but—even on the most creative of hot stoves—there has been little buzz about this prospect since the signing.
Quite to the contrary, most of the commentary that has surfaced over the last seven days seems to suggest the Sharks are intent on keeping both Nitty and Niemi for 2010-2011.
What would this mean for the team?
Many assume that such a situation reflects a best-case scenario, and that it would be an improvement over the net-minding situation San Jose has seen in recent years.
One of the main knocks against Nabby was always that he played too many regular season games, making him too fatigued to be truly competitive once the playoffs began.
There may be merit to that argument, but a tandem of Niemi and Nitty is far from a sure thing.
Niemi has started exactly 61 games in the NHL, hardly the depth of experience that would inspire confidence in his abilities to repeat his 2009-2010 success (which itself was modest statistically). He also played behind a much stronger defense last season than the one the Sharks currently possess, raising the probability of a sophomore setback.
Nitty's NHL struggles are well-chronicled (though his play in the 2006 Olympics was stellar), meaning that even despite the two splitting work, the Sharks would still be suspect at best in net.
If the goalies cannot be counted on the steal wins themselves, the Sharks must bolster their blue line—the sooner the better.
Having $4 million committed in net means the Sharks must part with one or more of their talented forwards. They must trade the likes of Ryane Clowe or Devin Setoguchi (plus other incentives) to lure a team into parting with a top defenseman, and would need to jettison the salary anyway to stay under the salary cap.
There are few other options.
If the Sharks go into the season with Nitty and Niemi in net and do nothing to improve their blue line—barring tremendous progression from Jason Demers, Niclas Wallin, and Kent Huskins—they will assuredly struggle. They could sign unrestricted free agent Andreas Lilja and probably retain all their other regulars, but this probably would not be enough either.
The Sharks would do best by themselves to invest in their blue line and part with either Nitty or Niemi by the start of the season.
The return of the exchange is anyone's guess, but given the buzz around Niemi he should have decent trade value. Packaging him with prospects or picks might be intriguing enough to pull in the top-four defenseman the team desperately needs.
Keeping both Niemi and Nitty is far from a winning strategy.
Keep the Faith!