Antero Niittymaki is the Sharks most expendable player on payroll
With the San Jose Sharks' budget tight and needs many (click this link to view the offseason series posted on the Sharks page at Sports Haze Bay Area), the team must get the most out of every dollar spent.
The player on the current roster offering the least impact for his salary is Antero Niittymaki. He was signed to a two-year, $4 million deal last July to become the Sharks starting goalie.
This may not have been the best of moves given the number of other goalies signed for less and his history of injuries (added to in 2011). But it was understandable because he was coming off a solid season as a starter (.909 save percentage in 49 games) and not many starters can be had for just $2 million a year.
However, things changed when the team had a chance to sign Antti Niemi. With Niemi the projected starter for the next four seasons and expected to put in 60 games a year, paying $2 million for a player who will be in about two dozen games including the playoffs is a luxury this team cannot afford.
Niitty had a 2.72 goals-against average (Nemo's was 2.38) and a save percentage of .896 (Nemo's was .920). He played well in relief during the playoffs, stopping 29 of 30 shots (.967) and collecting a win, but it was not enough to unseat Nemo.
The reality is those numbers will not set him apart from others in this list, much less warrant paying him more.
Osgood only played in 11 games in 2010-11, but did register a .903 save percentage and respectable 2.77 GAA. Given his age (he will turn 39 during the season) and injury, his cap number (sub-$1.5 million) should actually go down.
But what he brings to the table is experience—over 700 regular season games and 129 playoff games. His presence will be good for Antti Niemi and the entire team, and would serve him well if pressed into action.
Johan Hedberg just turned 38 and did a fine job of filling in for Martin Brodeur last season: .912 save pct., 2.38 GAA in 34 games. So why would he be lower on the list than Osgood?
This is not about upgrading Antero Niittymaki as much as saving cap space. That performance may price him out of the Sharks range, but they may be able to get a discount because he got his start with the franchise.
Ty Conklin has been a steady backup goalie for a number of years. He has even carried teams that made it to the Stanley Cup Finals for stretches of the season.
He made just $1.3 million last season, and might actually go down in price despite the elevated cap because he struggled. In 25 games with St. Louis, he posted a 3.22 GAA and .881 save percentage.
But in 26 games with them the season before, he posted a 2.48 GAA and .921 save percentage. At just 35, it is hard to think his career went into the tank so drastically in so little time.
San Jose is a familiar location for Brian Boucher, and it was here his career last got another chance.
Rapport with former teammates should make this a more desirable destination than the weather alone, and also make him more valuable to the team. But Boucher also has shown the ability to carry winning teams for stretches and has playoff experience.
At 34, his best years are behind him and he is not going to be a full-time starter. For this reason, his bargain price of under $1 million should not go up much, yet he is not old enough to think he will fall much from his 2.42 GAA and .916 save percentage in 34 games last season.
Alex Auld earned $1 million to back up Carey Price last season in Montreal and had a 2.64 GAA and .914 save percentage in 16 games. Those are solid numbers for a backup.
At 30 years old, he has had enough time to prove he cannot be a long-term starter and will not see much of a raise over last season. However, he is young enough to know he should not suffer much if any drop in ability.
Moreover, Auld has shown the ability to carry the load for short runs, most recently in the 2008-09 season with Ottawa, where he posted a 2.47 GAA and .911 save percentage in 43 games. This makes him a solid backup at an affordable cost.
At 33, Mathieu Garon is another goalie who has been around long enough to know he is not worth starting goalie money but is still young enough to count on for next season.
In fact, in each of the last two seasons with a bad Columbus Blue Jacket team, he has recorded a save percentage over .900 and played in at least 35 games. (Both of those numbers are comparable to their chosen goalie of the future, Steve Mason.) That is the kind of stability a contender can use in its second goaltender.
Much like Antero Niittymaki, Budaj has been tried as a starting goaltender more than once in his career. And much like Niitty, teams must now realize he cannot handle those responsibilities, making him affordable.
However, he has less history of injuries and a better career save percentage than Niitty. He is also younger and should come cheaper, making little more than the $1.25 million he did last season.
To put it bluntly, Marty Turco is no longer a viable starter and would be a downgrade from Niitty. Chicago proved that last year when he was unable to handle the duties and a defending champion went with an unproven rookie in net.
Three of Turco's last six seasons have seen his save percentage be under .900. He will be 36 by the time the season starts, and has more mileage than any other player on this list.
So why is he here? Simply put, those problems will make him come cheap. His knowledge and experience can help Antti Niemi, and he can handle the reduced workload of a backup respectably.
And veterans always have the chance to get in a groove and play at former heights for brief periods. Should he be pressed into more action, there is always the chance the team will catch lightning in a bottle.
Perhaps the Sharks do not even have to go outside of the family to find Niitty's replacement. Thomas Greiss is an unrestricted free agent, but he will not garner a lot of interest given the 19 games of NHL experience he has.
However, he has benefited from one of the best goalie coaching franchises in the league and shown promise in his limited action, posting over a .900 save percentage. He even played effectively in his one playoff appearance, with a .929 save percentage in 40:00 against the Detroit Red Wings.
At 25 years old, he will only get better and may be ready to play 20 games a season.
In truth, Alex Stalock is a long-shot. The soon-to-be 24-year-old is coming back from a nasty leg laceration that required surgery last February, and while he should be fine to play this next season, it may take a while to get back to where he was.
Furthermore, where he was is a player that spent just 30 minutes on the ice in the NHL. Sure, he stopped all nine shots to allow the Sharks to come from behind to beat the Phoenix Coyotes, but relying on such a player is unwise.
However, he is on this list because he has been good in the AHL and was great in college. Should his development exceed expectations, he may well be ready for the backup role and come at a very small cost.
There are other good choices for the Sharks that were not included on the list because of their expected demand or uncertainly with injuries.
Tomas Vokoun, Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Pascal Leclaire and Mike Smith are not on this list. All four made far more than Niittymaki did last season and should be in line to make more than him in 2011-12.
Jose Theodore may have cost just $1.1 million last season, but that seems a fluke. He will be in demand next season because he performed so well not only last season but the one before it. Someone will pay him at least borderline starter money.
Similarly, Ray Emery proved to be a viable starter and is young enough to assume his return from injury will not suffer a setback. He will make over $2 million next season.
Josh Harding would be a great option if he is healthy. However, he has not played since suffering a hip injury late in the 2009-10 season that threatens his career.
There are other possibilities outside of the top-10 the Sharks could explore. But much like Alex Stalock, they should not be counted on so Niitty should not be released unless they have proven themselves in camp.