The San Jose Sharks owe much of the credit to their strong finish last season to goaltender Antti Niemi. What’s not so strange about giving credit to him is that he’s been everything they hoped he would be since coming over from Chicago three years ago.
After not getting a lot of credit for helping the Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup in 2010, Niemi arrived in San Jose thanks to some nifty salary cap strategy by GM Doug Wilson. Chicago wanted to hang on to Niemi but after the Sharks forced their hand to retain then restricted free agent Niklas Hjalmarsson via offer sheet, the cap strapped ‘Hawks had to let Niemi go when San Jose pounced on him.
Since then, he’s been the rock in goal for the Sharks that Evgeni Nabokov wasn’t.
The past three seasons have been sneakily great for the Finnish netminder. Check out his numbers while he’s been in San Jose:
2010-2011: 35-18-6 .920 2.38
2011-2012: 34-22-9 .915 2.42
2012-2013: 24-12-6 .924 2.16
What makes his stats last season so incredible is he led the NHL in not just wins but also minutes played. With a workload like that, you’d expect him to wear down. Instead, he was just as strong through the playoffs and was only unseated by a white-hot Jonathan Quick and the L.A. Kings. No wonder he was a Vezina Trophy finalist.
When you compare those numbers to what Nabokov did at the same age (27-29) in San Jose, Niemi stands even taller. The Sharks also didn’t hear many questions or worries about how Niemi would hold up in the playoffs, something that often occurred (still occurs?) with Nabokov.
Now the Sharks just have to hope new backup Alex Stalock can help make sure he stays fresh deep into next season and the playoffs. With Niemi having a great chance to make the Finnish Olympic team, they’ll need that help.
San Jose may not have known at the time that they made a big upgrade in goal when they signed Niemi, but that’s just what they got.