Antti Niemi first signed with the San Jose Sharks in 2010. He was 26 years old at the time and was the proud owner of one Stanley Cup title from the year before. Upon his arrival, Niemi understood the situation that the Sharks were putting him in. He would be replacing the best goalie in Sharks’ history: Evgeni Nabokov. Moreover, after helping his team secure the Stanley Cup the year, it was expected that he could do the same for the Sharks.
Fast-forward three seasons and he has remained the undisputed starter for San Jose. However, in his fourth season, is Niemi still the team’s ”go to” goalie?
Enter Alex Stalock. Stalock, who is only in his sophomore season, received his first consecutive start this week against the Carolina Hurricanes. So far this season, Stalock’s record is 10-4-0, he has a 1.78 GAA (average goals allowed) and a .933 save percentage. Although these are some amazing stats, let’s not forget that he has only played 14 games.
I am sure that the Sharks are not eager to jump right into a goalie controversy just weeks away from the postseason. Coach Todd McLellan seems to be of the same mindset, commenting in a recent interview that he has simply been giving Niemi a post-Olympic rest.
But let’s be realistic. Why would the Sharks leave Niemi for Stalock? This year, the average age of a goalie in the Pacific Division is 29 years old- Niemi is 30. At that age, it’s appropriate to assume Niemi has limited mileage left, but on the flipside, he has the experience and it stands to reason that—with a good performance—he is all but entitled to the starting position. And then there are the statistics: Niemi ranks in the top five for wins in the NHL, which is arguably the one statistic that really matters. To prove my point, just look at the Edmonton Oilers goalie, Ben Scrivens, or even Carolina Hurricanes’ goalie, Anton Khudobin. Scrivens has a better save percentage than Niemi and Khudobin allows fewer goals per game on average than Niemi, yet both Khudobin’s and Scrivens’ teams will need miracles to make it to the playoffs this year.
So when all is said and done, there appears to be no evidence against starting Niemi. Or is there? Let’s keep in mind that the Sharks have one of the best defenses in the league. They are only giving up 2.37 goals a game which is the seventh best in the NHL. Now, out of the top ten defenses in the NHL—based off of goals allowed— 13 goalies receive substantial playtime. Out of these goalies, Niemi ranks ninth in goals allowed average and eleventh in save percentage. So one may consider the notion that the Sharks’ great defensive play comes from the skaters and not from good goalie play.
So what exactly are the two potential outcomes riding on this goalie-vs-goalie situation? In my eyes, there are two:
1. Despite what happens between now and postseason, the Sharks will have a good goalie, regardless of whether Stalock or Niemi starts.
2. If a goalie competition does develop, then it will only strengthen the position. The bottom line is that competition forces the best product in the least amount of time. Nothing inspires improvement like unemployment or a seat on the bench.
In reality I doubt that this will turn into a full-fledged battle, at least not this year. The Sharks have come this far with Niemi, so unless his play severely deteriorates, then I assume he will maintain his starting position, possibly splitting some ice time with Stalock. However if Stalock continues to play like he has been all season, then maybe the Sharks will consider a change in the offseason.
All stats from ESPN.com/nhl