The signing of Antti Niemi has yet to show the returns many fans had hoped for.
It seemed like the perfect move to many.
Following a sweep in the 2010 Western Conference Finals at the hands of the Chicago Blackhawks, the San Jose Sharks set about dealing with an offseason full of high-profile free agents, trying to revamp their roster for another shot at the Stanley Cup.
Their first move was to part with chronic playoff underperformer Evgeni Nabokov in goal, and use the $5 million so displaced to help secure Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski long-term. This allowed the Sharks to keep a talented and dangerous core of forwards intact, but did not address a defense which was already a liability prior to the departure of Rob Blake, or the fact that young Thomas Greiss sat as the primary option at goaltender.
Few were satisfied by the early signing of Antero Niittymaki, a goaltender who earned MVP honors and a silver medal in the Torino Olympics in 2006, but had struggled mightily in NHL play.
That would change just prior to training camp, as an odd sequence of events put defending Stanley Cup Champion goaltender Antti Niemi on the market. The Blackhawks refused to pay the $2.75 million awarded Niemi in arbitration, making him an unrestricted free agent, and the Sharks quickly swooped in to sign the second-year veteran to a $2 million deal.
While more knowledgeable experts and fans questioned the move, the sentiment among the majority of the Sharks' largely casual fanbase was one of immense excitement. Expectations were higher than ever, and many speculated Niemi was the last elusive piece of their Stanley Cup puzzle.
So far, not so good.
In three starts, Niemi has allowed 11 goals on 91 shots, for just a .879 save percentage and a 3.71 goals against average. Even the Sharks' impressive offense has not been able to cover for him, as the Sharks are 1-2-0 in those games.
Niemi's save percentage and GAA rank 42nd and 43rd respectively in NHL so far this year. That means that statistically speaking, not only does every other team in the 30-team NHL have at least one goaltender who is better than Nimei, but nearly half of them have two!
Fans have been quick to make excuses for the slow start, claiming the trip to Europe to start the season followed by a week off was largely to blame for the Sharks' lackluster play so far. "Relax, it's a long season," has been an all-too-common refrain. The Sharks need to face reality, however, and understand that if they cannot solve this issue soon, it may wind up being a VERY long season.
The Sharks are built around offense, not defense, and have yet to come to terms with the fact that neither Niemi nor Niittymaki are as steady in net as Nabokov was. The neutral zone turnovers and defensive miscues that once resulted in harmless shots on a ready Nabokov have been lighting the lamp this season.
Niittymaki has been decidedly better than Niemi so far this year, and the Sharks still have the option of reaching back to Thomas Greiss, now playing in Sweden's SEL. However, statistics have shown that in order to have a rested goaltender for the postseason, your backup must start about 30 games in the regular season, so regardless of who takes over the primary duties in net, Niemi will likely remain a key component of the Sharks' aspirations.
This points again toward bolstering the defense and tightening play. The Blackhawks won the Cup last year not due to the overwhelming play of superstars like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa, nor due to the hot streak of role players like Dustin Byfuglien, but rather thanks in large part to the stellar play of a very talented defensive unit.
The Sharks made a decision to go with a young, raw, home grown defensive core in 2010-2011, failing to pursue the likes of Dan Hamhuis, Henrik Tallinder and other big-name free agents, and allowing camp invitee Andreas Lilja to fall to the division rival Anaheim Ducks. They have paid the price so far, as they sit five points off the division lead, tied for last in the Pacific (granted they have played the fewest games).
It may still be early, but the problems illustrated through even just the first five games on defense and in net show that waiting until the trading deadline to improve the defense could be a major mistake.
The Sharks have grown accustomed to building a lead in the standings and trying to protect it in recent years. Already in 2010-2011 they have put themselves in quite a different posture. Of course, this could be the adversity that finally forges a champion's resolve in Team Teal, but their play so far has been far from championship caliber, and does not seem poised to change anytime soon with their current personnel.
Keep the Faith!