The San Jose Sharks have found the heir apparent to the departed Evgeni Nabokov in a most surprising fashion.
The Sharks announced Tuesday they had signed goaltender Antti Niemi to a four-year contract extension worth $15.2 million. Just 10 months ago, Niemi baffled the Sharks in a hard-fought but ultimately one-sided Western Conference Finals series in which Niemi's Chicago Blackhawks swept San Jose on the way to their first Stanley Cup in over half a century.
Now, Niemi looks to be Team Teal's top option in net for the foreseeable future.
The contract extension marks a distinct shift in the Sharks' stated philosophy toward goaltending going into the 2010-2011 season. The Sharks parted with one of their longest-tenured mainstays in Nabokov, and general manager Doug Wilson expressed his desire to use the money saved to improve the team in other areas while relying on a rotational system of younger and cheaper goaltenders.
That changed slightly when the Blackhawks decided that Niemi's $2.75 million arbitration award was too high, and the Sharks signed him to a $2 million contract. Paired with a two-year, $4 million deal for Antero Niittymaki, that raised San Jose's 2010-2011 investment in goal to $4 million, only marginally less than the $6 million Nabokov earned in 2009-2010.
Now, the Sharks will be very nearly back to the investment they had in Nabokov, with Niemi earning just under $4 million and Niittymaki still owed $2 million next year.
Furthermore, with the significant new investment in Niemi and his ever-growing consecutive start-streak, it seems the Sharks are right back to a designated pecking order in net, rather than the rotational approach they sought to employ this year.
So, was this signing an over-investment? Perhaps.
People often forget how short a track record Niemi has in the NHL; he played just 61 games as a rookie last year with 22 coming in the playoffs. His overall stats are not eye-popping: just a 2.36 goals-against average and a .915 save percentage.
He started the season extremely cold, ranking 30th or worse in GAA and SV percentage, which led many to speculate Niittymaki would soon take the lead in net.
However, Niemi deserves a lot of credit as well. People like to stress the strength of his defense pairings in winning the Cup last year, but he certainly had plenty to do with beating the Sharks in four games in the third round.
Niemi's combination of youth and playoff experience are a definite rarity, and could make him a reliable option in San Jose for years to come.
Niemi has seemed to only get better, quickly supplanting Cristobal Huet last season before taking a stranglehold on net-minding duties in San Jose this year. He's been key to the Sharks' recent surge, posting multiple shutouts and earning Second Star honors from the NHL for the month of February.
In the end, Niemi put the Sharks in a bit of difficult spot.
Niittymaki went down with an injury, relinquishing starting duties to Niemi, who has not looked back. His starting streak has eclipsed 20 games—and shows no sign of ending—and his play has been critical in restoring a solid Sharks lead in the Pacific Division.
Niemi may still have a limited résumé, but he has proven over the course of the last several months that this deal was worth the risk.
He gives the Sharks something they have never had: a Stanley Cup Champion goaltender come playoff time.
The Sharks do need to find some protection for him, however. Especially now that he has become a long-term piece of the puzzle, they can ill-afford to extend this consecutive streak of starts much further. Niemi has handled the load with great aplomb to date, but he cannot continue to start night in and night out.
Niittymaki should be back soon, and will have to be the answer for this year. But given the financial commitment, one must now question whether Alex Stalock will join the team next season to back up Niemi.
Will Niemi celebrate his well-earned contract with another piece of flashy jewelry this June?
We'll have to wait and see, but the Sharks have done well either way.
Keep the Faith!