Now that we've had a little time to chew on the Antti Niemi signing by the Sharks, what are they really getting? The general consensus is that Niemi is just a product of a stellar Blackhawks defense and is doomed to mediocrity behind a Sharks defense rated as weak to average at best. Let's take a closer look:
Niemi is an above average size goaltender at 6'2 and 200 pounds. He has a butterfly style that many scouts have called unorthodox. His strength is his athleticism, exceptionally quick footwork and great low net coverage. Antti’s secure 5 hole will be a welcome change for Sharks fans. Because of his butterfly style he tends to knock away pucks with his feet and pads instead of swallowing pucks and holding for a face-off. This is the fear of many who follow the Sharks. That Niemi will be giving up juicy rebounds that the Sharks defense can not clear.
Those of you who watched the Western Conference finals remember how many times he seemed so far out of position to cover an open side, but still managed to get over just in time to kick out the shot. This left many Sharks fans and players alike shaking their heads in disbelief.
After early wins versus Vancouver and San Jose in the playoffs, both teams stated that all they had to do against Niemi was to get their shots higher and all would be ok. Niemi's glove hand is supposedly the weakest part of his game. That strategy never really seemed to pan out.
Chicago winger Patrick Kane didn't buy into that notion. "To be honest with you, he's one of the hardest goaltenders to score on in practice shooting high, "Kane said during last year’s playoffs.
Niemi is a quiet person with no ego to speak of. He is known as a battler with a great work ethic and a strong mental makeup. He does not fluster easily as shown in last year’s playoffs.
Niemi is also coming into an organization with a great reputation as a goalie factory mostly due to Sharks VP and goalie guru Wayne Thomas. Thomas works with the Sharks goaltenders on the big club and also down in Worcester. He has been credited with developing fellow Fins Mikka Kiprusoff and Vesa Toskala along with Nabokov. He had a firsthand view of Niemi during the conference finals and was undoubtedly instrumental in the Sharks decision making to acquire Niemi.
Under Thomas’s guidance, Niemi's best days are likely still be ahead of him. Niemi's butterfly style and how the Sharks defense works with it is what training camp is all about.
I have a feeling the big talk later this year will be when the Sharks will extend Antti Niemi’s contract, not that he gives up too many rebounds.