San Jose Sharks backup goalie Antero Niittymaki has undergone surgery to fix a lower-body injury that occurred in February of this past season. He will miss 12 weeks in recovery, as reported on Thursday.
This leaves an otherwise solid net situation vulnerable. But another injury will actually be helpful in finding out just how much.
Starter Antti Niemi had surgery to remove a cyst and is all but certain to be ready for the start of the season. That means other goalies will get the playing time in the remaining five games of the preseason (the Sharks won the opener in Anaheim, 6-1).
Unfortunately, while ahead on his rehabilitation, Alex Stalock has not recovered from the nerve damage of a skate slash he suffered last February. Thus, while the official team training camp roster shows seven goaltenders, only four are healthy.
Of those, only Thomas Greiss has any NHL experience. The team will see if he can be a backup in the extensive play he will see.
After saying he plans for Greiss to see a lot of action and play full games, coach Todd McLellan commented (in the same NHL.com report) about this weekend's three consecutive games. "I don't think he'll play three games in a row, but he'll be tired when the weekend is over," he said.
That will be necessary to see if he is capable of handling the backup role adequately. And while a backup may not play in the playoffs or regularly during the season, it is a more important position than a fourth-line forward or sixth defenceman.
Where does the Sharks goalie tandem rank without Niittymaki?
Good backups have to be able to start for stretches in the event of injury. They also must be able to play well enough to adequately spell the starter for at least 15 to 20 times per season without regular action. That puts them on the ice for over 1,000 minutes of a season—more than any skater getting 12 minutes per game, even if they play every one of them.
Last season, Niemi looked slow and overwhelmed by the playoffs. He bounced back by the Detroit series, but was still not as good in May as he had been in March. Perhaps finishing those series earlier and not having to play as up-tempo to catch up would have left the Sharks less worn down by the time they faced Vancouver.
Fatigue takes its toll on goalies just like it does on skaters. Last season, the injury to Niittymaki forced Niemi to play in 36 of the last 37 games.
No goalie who played more than 68 games during the regular season has been able to win a Stanley Cup in any year that tournament started after his 31st birthday.
Going back 20 years, only two younger players pulled off that feat: Martin Brodeur and Mike Richter. So, if Greiss can handle the preseason workload, the team will be able to see if he can handle the irregular action of the regular season well enough to keep his team in at least 20 games per year.
If he can handle both responsibilities, it would place him among the top half of backups in the league. It would also allow the Sharks to demote Niitty to the minors when he returns to give them more cap space to make a move.
Which unit should the Sharks spend their considerable cap money upgrading?
Prorating the contract from beyond that Christmas return means the team could add players with a combined 2011-12 salary of over $10 million—i.e., anyone they want.
However, if Greiss cannot handle either of those responsibilities, the Sharks may be in trouble. Tyson Sexsmith and Harri Sateri are not presumed ready for the NHL and no one else has a chance to be. The team would have to lean heavily on Nemo until Niitty came back, but they should not feel compelled to make a move for someone.
Nemo will have missed out on the full conditioning advantages of the preseason, so there might be a risk in playing him in 29 of the Sharks' first 32 games. However, that many games would allow him to avoid back-to-back contests, and Greiss would almost certainly be tried at least those three times before being given up on for a major role.
If Niitty returned well enough to play at his expected level for 12 of the last 50 games, including taking one of two in each of the eight remaining back-to-back contests, that would be adequate. When healthy, he is able to carry the load for a stretch and handle those spot starts.
Added to Nemo, who would have finished top five in my list of goalies last season for the way he carried the Sharks down the stretch, Niitty gives San Jose a top five goalie tandem (behind at least Los Angeles, Vancouver and obviously Boston).
But with his health and the readiness of others somewhat in question, the San Jose tandem probably also rates behind Anaheim, Buffalo, Carolina, Minnesota, Nashville, Pittsburgh and maybe the New York Rangers.
Thus, at worst, the Sharks start the season with a top-10 tandem. If Niitty is not ready and able to go by January, the team should get a viable alternative to keep Nemo fresh.