Yesterday we told you about how Antti Niemi was dead-set on staying in North America this year and playing in the NHL. While we’re more than aware of Niemi’s situation as it stands thanks to the Blackhawks parting ways with him, it’s worth taking a look around the league at what teams, even remotely, could stand to use Antti Niemi.
There are eight teams by my estimation that conceivably could use Antti Niemi:
San Jose, Columbus, Nashville, Philadelphia, New York Islanders, Washington, Florida, Tampa Bay
Of those eight, one has already declared they have no interest in Niemi (like the Islanders have) or are going with other options. For some teams, their situations seem to be rather intriguing and much more amenable to adding a goalie who just helped his team win the Cup.
San Jose: The Sharks have made their bed with Antero Niittymaki and appear to be all in on having Thomas Greiss to split time with him. Greiss doesn’t offer much in the way of real NHL experience having been Evgeni Nabokov’s backup for the last year. Niittymaki is joining the Sharks after spending his career splitting time in Philadelphia and Tampa Bay alike. He’s never truly been “the man” in either place and he’s proven to be snake-bitten by injuries. Having an experienced and capable backup just in case could work out pretty well, especially since Niemi’s asking price would be pretty small at this point.
Columbus: I put the Blue Jackets on this list only because of how poor Steve Mason’s season was last year. Backup goalie Mathieu Garon is good enough to help spell time, but you’d have to think that Niemi would be an improvement over Garon at the least and could be just the person to help push Mason into recapturing his Calder Trophy nominated play from two seasons ago.
Nashville: So the Predators don’t have an experienced backup goalie right now and appear to be heading into camp giving a host of their home-grown talent a shot to make the NHL to play the part of Pekka Rinne’s caddy. The team has been rumored to be looking at Jose Theodore to potentially play that role, but why not take a flier on Rinne’s fellow countryman from Finland in Niemi? It’s likely the two could play off each other and Niemi could provide more than capable support for Rinne when he needs a break. With the Predators defensive system, Niemi could provide more-than-capable relief work with a short learning curve.
Philadelphia: They’ve been rumored to be hot for Niemi since the get-go in this whole mess and for good reason. Brian Boucher and Michael Leighton are nice goalies but banking on them to carry the load for a full season and the playoffs might be asking a lot of either of them. The Flyers have done their part to improve the defense in front of them and that will go a long way to solving some of those worries. Adding Niemi, however, would give them a guy who’s proven that he can get it done, something the Flyers know a little too well themselves.
Washington: First off, Niemi will not end up with the Capitals. No way, no how. Well, not immediately anyhow. If the Caps experiment of going with Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth starts to go south and the Caps start to struggle because of the goaltending (read: not because of sloppy defense or lack of scoring) it wouldn’t shock me something awful to see the Caps, if they still could, float an offer Niemi’s way and let him jump into the fire. This would likely be a last-resort sort of move, however.
Florida: If there’s a team to keep an eye on through all this, it’s the Panthers. The GM that brought Antti Niemi on board in Chicago is now the GM of the Panthers (Dale Tallon) and he was quoted saying this about Niemi, “Do I have interest in him? We have any player with his history, that is a champion. We’re open for business 24-7.” The Panthers have Tomas Vokoun holding down the starting job, but if I were Scott Clemmensen, I’d start to get a little nervous about my job in Sunrise, Florida. The Panthers have tremendous goaltending depth in the minors, but Vokoun is a free agent after this season and Niemi could be their inexpensive building block of the short-term future in goal.
Tampa Bay: Here’s another situation where Niemi isn’t an immediate answer but he could be one in the future. At this point during the free agent season, there’s no way you can count Tampa Bay out of anything really. Mike Smith is a very good goalie, but he’s injury-prone and Dan Ellis needs to prove that he can carry the load consistently through a full season before banking on them as sure things. I have no doubts that Antti Niemi’s number could be in GM Steve Yzerman’s phone should Smith’s injury bug bites him again or Ellis comes up short.
Of all these teams, Florida has raced out to the front of the speculation lead for Niemi’s services because of his past with Dale Tallon and Tallon’s glowing words about him. San Jose fans insist that Niemi won’t fit with the Sharks even though having him go there seems to make a world of sense. Feel free to tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about, however. Just don’t try to convince me that a tandem of Niittymaki and Greiss is going to get it done and take the Sharks to the Stanley Cup. That sort of goaltending plan has failed the Philadelphia Flyers for the last 30+ years.