Antti Niemi's improvement a good sign for the Sharks

Niemi's recent five game swing could mean a much more reliable goalie tandem is right around the corner.

The first quarter of Antti Niemi's season as a San Jose Shark has been filled with vitriol, confusion, exasperation, and confusion. Many have questioned Sharks Head Coach Todd McLellan's decision to put him between the pipes on any given night, citing Antero Niittymaki's reflexes and strong play through the quarter mark as reason to leave Neemo at sea, floating on the driftwood known as the Sharks bench.

Carrying an .890 SV% out of Detroit on Monday night following a 5-2 victory, the rational to ride Niittymaki more as the season progresses is rooted in some form of reason-- he boasted a .920 SV% for most of the early year, keeping the Sharks afloat and accruing standings points despite being outplayed on many nights. If our heart strings were looking to weave their way into the webbing of a goalie glove after fan favorite Evgeni Nabokov departed overseas, the choice was clear-- it was Nitty through and through. First impressions have a way of overcoming even the most objective of observers, and the two Finns started their Sharks careers with a juxtaposition usually reserved for films starring Rob Lowe and his obligatory protagonist counterpart. Niemi was the distrusted one, a Paul Barish-Burns type with a murky past, while Niittymaki was the lovable Tommy Callahan, a man who may have struggled with consistency before but eventually earned the trust of his business partners.

In our editorial piece on the signing of Niemi this offseason, it was clear that we felt he was not the right man for the Sharks job. Far from it in fact:

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. It's akin to signing Chris Osgood two years ago based off the fact that he won a Cup, and discounting the fact that he had an all-world defense in front of him led by future Hall of Famer Niklas Lidstrom.

>> Fear The Fin, "Antti Niemi reportedly set to sign with San Jose for one year, $2.0MM"

Niemi's rebound control, long cited as a glaring weakness of his, was on full display throughout the first part of the season, and admittedly continues to be today. It is an aspect of his game that will always be an issue for San Jose this season, especially with the mediocre blueline currently in place. But work with Sharks goaltending gurus Wayne Thomas and Corey Schwab in recent weeks has seemingly paid off dividends, managing to limit the egregious second chance opportunities that had become commonplace following Niemi's initial save.

And while it hasn't sent Niemi's statistics soaring upwards to the moon, it's clear that his work in practice has produced dividends lately.

Beginning with San Jose's 5-2 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks on November 24th, Niemi has seen 5 out of 7 possible starts between the pipes for the Sharks. Over that span he has posted a .896 SV% (112 saves on 125 shots), a total that has many wondering why Todd McLellan has chosen him as the goaltender of the moment in what is sure to be a carousel tandem until April of 2011.

However, those totals don't necessarily reflect Niemi's performances. Small sample size has a habit of playing tricks with numbers, especially ones as volatile as goaltending. Over the course of the year we can expect SV% to balance out in relation to Niittymaki and the rest of the NHL's goaltenders (in other words, all will be victim's of defensive lapses), but a closer look may be in order.

Which is what we're going to do today. Click on the accompanying picture for a link to the video highlights if you wish to watch what I'm analyzing.

5-2 W vs. Chicago (30/32 saves)

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(1) 1:10-- Jake Dowell. In a moment of overpursuit the Sharks defense gets caught chasing the puck up the point, leaving Patrick Kane alone down low where he drives hard from the end line to Niemi's near post. Torrey Mitchell and Kent Huskins fail to communicate, with both players attempting to take away the pass and failing to clear out Dowell crashing the net. The puck squeeks by Niemi near side off the skate of Dowell. Although the defense could have done a much better job protecting the front of the net here (especially with a dangerous player such as Patrick Kane alone in the zone), Niemi is billed as a netminder who takes away the bottom half of the net extremely well. His inability to hold his position and stay glued to the post makes this goal one in which he shares part of the blame.

(2) 2:40-- Patrick Sharp. After a series of frantic saves that saw Niemi flopping about on the ice, he regains his composure when the puck goes to the point. Nick Boynton's slap shot is re-directed by some nifty stickwork from Patrick Sharp in the high slot, tumbling end over end past Niemi far-side. Niemi's positioning here is fairly solid-- he's high in his crease challenging the shooter, cutting off the angle. He's crouched a little too much for my liking when the shot is initially taken, attempting to cover the lower part of the net as he's fighting to see through a screen, but manages to get upright by the time the puck reaches him. That deflection is mad wicked nasty breh. Hard to fault Niemi here.

6-1 L @ Vancouver (26/32 saves)

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(1) 0:25-- Jeff Tambellini. The Canucks win the draw, and after Alexander Edler's point shot is blocked by a Shark, the rebound sits between the circles awaiting some action. Tambellini pounces and puts the puck through Niemi. Although you'd maybe like to see Niemi have some more awareness on the play, the blocked shot produced a weird rebound off of what appeared to be the inside of Torrey Mitchell's leg. Niemi drops to the butterfly and keeps his body upright, playing the percentages in the hopes that the ensuing shot will find him instead of him finding it. Not a weak goal by any means.

(2) 1:42-- Raffi Torres. A horrendous clear by the Sharks (specifically McGinn, although Marleau floats out of the zone much too lackadasically) keeps the Canucks in the zone, and they attack the net with numbers. Derek Joslin tries to get his stick down to take away the pass but Jannik Hansen threads the needle to find Torres. One-timer up high, red lights ablaze. Niemi's post to post attempts always result in him falling forward, which is an issue, but this one he had no chance on. It's a goal just about every time a shooter elevates the puck and puts it inside the post.

(3) 2:10-- Mikael Samuelsson. A good split second screen by Tanner Glass and the pursuing Kent Huskins provide all the distraction needed for Samuelsson to pick his spot and put it past Niemi. Niclas Wallin backs out of the shooting lane at the last second as well. This one's kind of a toss up for me as Niemi could have made the save, but it's hard to label it a softie-- Niemi takes away most of the net and forces Samuelsson to make his shot.

(4) 3:45-- Mikael Samuelsson (2nd). Dan Boyle centers a feed to the wrong colored jersey in the middle of the zone. Helluva assist though. Samuelsson has all the time in the world, forces Niemi to make the first move, and picks his corner. Nothing Niemi can do here.

(5) 3:55-- Alex Burrows. Off the Canucks cycle, Henrik Sedin holds the puck behind the net. Burrows creeps into the slot to receive the pass, and Kent Huskins sort of humorously gets his stick caught in the net (microcosm of that game), rendering him unable to even attempt to get his stick in the passing lane. Nothing harder for a goaltender to do than defend a one-timer off a feed from behind the net. Niemi exempt from criticism.

(6) 4:15-- Keith Ballard. A slap shot from the point with nothing in Niemi's view except the puck whizzing by his head. I forget if Mitchell's stick deflected the puck or not, but we can safely hang this on the goaltending. The first (and only) weak goal in this series.

4-0 W @ Ottawa (28/28 saves)

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Huzzah! The Sharks notch their first shutout of the season, and Ottawa descends into blood-curdling rage.

3-1 L @ Montreal (16/19 saves)

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(1) 0:18-- Mathieu Darche. A puck off the skate of the linesman springs the Canadiens on the rush. San Jose gets enough players back, but after a missed shot comes off the backboards, Scott Nichol abruptly stops in front of the net and allows his assignment to get free. Niemi is off his angle a bit here, but with the velocity of the rebound coupled with Nichol's blatant error, this is one that you'd be hard pressed to fault Niemi for.

(2) 2:40-- Tomas Plekanec. Jamie McGinn is unable to clear a sitting puck at the top of the defensive zone, and compounds that error by losing an edge along the boards that springs Plekanec. Some nifty stickwork to the middle of the zone catches Justin Braun and Douglas Murray flat footed in front of the net, where Plekanec wrists one short side. Niemi is really scrambling during this play, dropping to the butterfly which jeopardizes his lateral mobility, but the defensive breakdown in front of him (as well as the unmarked Canadien sitting right on the doorstep to his right) produce a situation where he's forced to make a big save to bail out his teammates.

(3) 3:20-- Michael Cammalleri. A turnover in the Sharks offensive zone gives the Canadiens a break down the ice. Hamrlik gets a pair of shots in tight that Niemi manages to stop, but busted coverage by Douglas Murray and Justin Braun on the backcheck leaves Cammalleri unmolested in front of the net for the final chance. Third time's the charm, Habs score. Niemi plays this one well and is hung out to dry by his defenseman.

5-2 W @ Detroit (25/27 saves)

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(1) 0:20-- Tomas Holmstrom. Nicklas Lidstrom unloads a bomb from the point where Holmstrom's ever present behind is planted right where it was meant to be. That guy probably makes Rikishi's Stinkfaces smell like candied apples. What a horrible experience to live through. At any rate, a Holmstrom deflection in tight is just something that is going to happen throughout the course of a season.

(2) 0:50-- Johan Franzen. Some extremely soft coverage in the middle of the zone allows Brian Rafalski to thread a pass to Tomas Holmstrom breaking in from the top of the circle. Holmstrom puts on his best Datsyuk impersonation, sending a beautiful feed to Johan Franzen on the far side, who subsequently drives it home. One of the prettier plays you'll see this season, and one that Niemi cannot be held accountable for.

*****

The thirteen goals Antti Niemi has given up during his last five starts can be broken down into five categories-- GA that were softies, GA where he shares part of the blame, GA that are typical NHL goals, GA where a defensive breakdown or great play by the opposition forces Niemi to make an above average save, and GA where he had no chance. Erring on the conservative side when categorizing these goals, here are my final totals:


Qualitative Analysis of Niemi's GA During His Last Five Starts

Year
Softies Part-Blame
Typical GA
REQ. Above average save
No Chance
vs. Chicago
0
1 (#1)
0
1 (#2) 0
@ Vancouver
1 (#6)
0
2 (#1, 3)
0
3 (#2,4,5)
@ Ottawa
0 0
0
0
0
@ Montreal
0 0
0
3 (#1,2,3)
0
@ Detroit
0 0
1 (#1) 0
1 (#2)
Total
1 1
3
4
4


This five game period has seen Niemi post an .896 SV%, making 112 saves on 125 shots. Removing the events where he was left hung out to dry ("No Chance" in our table), Niemi makes 112 saves on 121 shots, good for a .925 SV%. In other words, if we throw out all the plays where he was absolutely abandoned by his defense, it seems as if this five game stretch validates McLellan's decision to give Niemi the reigns. He has been quite good. He has deserved his playing time.

Another interesting note-- Niemi's rebound control is cited as a huge detriment to his success as a goaltender, and make no mistake, I obviously view this as a severe weakness as well. It's an ugly side to his game and one that has hurt the Sharks before. But to say that this has directly resulted in pucks ending up in the back of San Jose's net during Niemi's last five starts is ludicrous. Only one goal against came off of a rebound (Montreal's third goal)-- that goal was solely due to the errors of Douglas Murray and Justin Braun failing to pick up their assignment, and not due to an egregious and juicy rebound kicked out into the slot.

The inadequacies in Niemi's game have been well chronicled. His propensity for bending over at the waist when moving laterally, weak glove hand, tendency to give up rebounds which hinder the Sharks breakout up the ice, poor puck handling, failure to cover the upper portion of the net, and erratic scrambling for loose pucks have all proved to be detrimental in some form or another throughout his young career.

He is a league average goaltender, one who will likely float around the .910 SV% range during the rest of his time in the NHL. What people seem to forget is that Evgeni Nabokov was a league average goaltender as well, failing to significantly outplay his backups during his entire ten year run in San Jose, and ranking 23rd in SV% since the lockout amongst goalies with at least 100 games played. Small sample size, like Niemi's 5 game run analyzed today, is not applicable there.

This is not an endorsement of Niemi over Niittymaki. This is not a promotion to name Niemi the number one goaltender for the rest of the season. This is not applause for the $2.0MM contract handed out to Niemi that made acquiring a top-three defenseman more difficult in respect to the cap. This is not a prediction that he will never have rebound issues again, and the top shelf goals he has fallen victim to before have suddenly subsided.

This is giving a goaltender his due by recognizing his most recent accomplishments. This is acknowledging the fact that just because he struggled immensely to start the season does not mean initial observations are applicable today.

Whether or not he continues to play as well as he has lately is something only the future knows.

But Niemi has certainly improved his game. And subsequently, he has improved the strength of the goaltending tandem currently in place in San Jose.

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