Almost a month to the day after the Chicago Blackhawks declined to accept Antti Niemi’s arbitration reward of $2.75 million, the Finnish goaltender has signed a one-year, $2 million contract with the San Jose Sharks according to multiple reports.
The news is surprising to some, considering the Sharks signed Antero Niittymaki on July 1 to be their starting backstop. Here’s a sample of what Mr. Plank from Fear the Fin feels about this deal:
In regards to the signing, I stand by my original assertion that this makes very
little sense for San Jose. Antti Niemi is a league-average goaltender who rode
on the coattails of a brilliant blueline in Chicago during their Stanley Cup
Finals win. His performance against the Sharks in the Western Conference Finals
was nothing but an aberration, a case of a goalie getting hot at the right time.
As you can see, Sharks fans are surprised and confused by this signing, primarily because they feel that the $2 million spent on Niemi should be going to a defenseman (and because San Jose was presumably ready to roll with Niittymaki and Greiss). Rob Blake retired earlier in the summer, and the team has yet to find a replacement.
It’s not for a lack of effort on GM Doug Wilson’s part, because he was the one that slapped the offer sheet on Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson back in July. San Jose was also seriously in the mix for Willie Mitchell, who signed with Los Angeles last week… and possibly Tomas Kaberle as well.
In reality though, after striking out on multiple defensemen, there aren’t many quality defensemen on the market here on September 1. I mean, is one of Marc-Andre Bergeron, Andreas Lilja, or Paul Mara really going to make a difference in the top-four? Maybe Bergeron, but San Jose needs a stay-at-home blueliner.
A trade was a possibility, too; and when Kaberle and Kevin Bieksa were reportedly on the block, San Jose was a team thought to be interested. But who were they going to trade for Kaberle, Bieksa, or any other top-four defenseman for that matter?
Ryane Clowe was a name that was thrown out there, but he’s a valuable second-liner. So is Devin Setoguchi. And Wilson would be wise to hang on to draft picks in the next couple of years instead of dealing them away (the Sharks have made just three top-60 selections in the last three drafts combined, one coming in the first round).
So as we sit two-plus weeks away from camps opening around the NHL, there really weren’t many options for Wilson to add to his blueline. Why not give the goaltending a boost by bringing in the Cup-winning netminder from this past spring?
Niemi gets a bad rap for not being as good as what he’s made out to be, etc. Folks, let’s take a step back. Last year was his first full season in the NHL and he won a Stanley Cup. Say all you want about how they won it all in spite of Niemi and that his defense made him the goalie he was… the dude won 16 playoff games (and had some really solid performances to boot).
Now, did the ‘Hawks defense help him out? No doubt about it. Chicago surrendered the least amount of shots per game by a fair margin and possessed arguably the league’s best pairing in Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. That 2.25 GAA of Niemi’s wasn’t all his doing.
Also, is Niemi’s ceiling very high? Not on the surface. The 2009/10 campaign could very well end up being his best when it’s all said and done. But it could just be the start of solid career as he’s still young to the NHL (though 27).
It will be interesting to see how Sharks coach Todd McLellan plays his cards here. Is Niittymaki the clear-cut number one, or is Niemi going to have an equal chance to get the job this pre-season? Not that it means anything in this regard, but they’ll each make $2 million next year.
Also, what does the future hold for Thomas Greiss, who posted a respectable 2.68 GAA as Evgeni Nabokov's backup a year ago? If Wilson and McLellan feel Nittymaki and Niemi is the duo to get them through the duration of the 2010/11 season, is a trade on the horizon for Greiss? There are a couple backup jobs available, along with a glut of up-and-coming goalies already in the Sharks' farm system.
Yes, the move here by Wilson is a confusing one to many San Jose fans. But he had over $3 million in cap space left and the options were thin as far as available defensemen go; might as well upgrade the goaltending as a ‘Plan B’.
I think this Finnish duo of Niemi and Niittymaki can be successful if McLellan doesn’t play musical chairs in net all year… go with the hot hand and let both get in a groove from time to time.
This wasn’t the move the Sharks really needed to make, but it could end up being a wise one by Wilson if Niemi – who dominated his new team in the conference finals in May – can at least somewhat resemble the success he had last year in Chicago.
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