Despite porous play on the penalty kill that mirrored the rest of the team's shorthanded effort, Antti Niemi and Thomas Greiss were an effective tandem in net for the Sharks last season. With Niemi likely to see the bulk of the starts once again, here's a look at what we can expect out of San Jose's goaltending this season.
2013 Cap Hit: $3,800,000
Expected Role: Heavily used starter
Depth Chart Position: Starting goaltender
Remember when the Sharks signed Niemi to that lengthy (by San Jose standards, anyway) contract extension during the 2010-11 season following a month in which he entered superhuman mode? That seemed like a pretty terrible decision at the time. Goaltenders are notoriously unpredictable creatures and given that Niemi's track record prior to that glorious February consisted of being an underwhelming component of a Stanley Cup championship and a disaster during his early career in San Jose, it made sense to be skeptical of Doug Wilson handing him a pretty substantial raise in exchange for one good month of hockey. Two years later, however, I think it might be safe to say Niemi has justified that move. Here's a look at the top 20 goaltender cap hits for the 2013 season alongside their career even-strength save percentage, widely regarded among the stat nerd community as the best approximation of goalie talent:
|Goaltender||2013 Cap Hit||Career EV SV%|
|Pekka Rinne||$7 million||0.928|
|Henrik Lundqvist||$6.88 million||0.928|
|Carey Price||$6.5 million||0.924|
|Cam Ward||$6.3 million||0.918|
|Ryan Miller||$6.25 million||0.922|
|Niklas Backstrom||$6 million||0.925|
|Miikka Kiprusoff||$5.83 million||0.924|
|Ilya Bryzgalov||$5.66 million||0.925|
|Roberto Luongo||$5.33 million||0.929|
|Marc-Andre Fleury||$5 million||0.918|
|Rick DiPietro||$4.5 million||0.914|
|Jonas Hiller||$4.5 million||0.927|
|Martin Brodeur||$4.5 million||0.921|
|Cory Schneider||$4 million||0.927|
|Ondrej Pavelec||$3.9 million||0.918|
|Antti Niemi||$3.8 million||0.925|
|Nikolai Khabibulin||$3.75 million||0.917|
|Jaroslav Halak||$3.75 million||0.925|
|Kari Lehtonen||$3.55 million||0.926|
|Devan Dubnyk||$3.5 million||0.920|
Only six goalies on this list have posted a higher even-strength save percentage over their careers than Niemi has while fifteen have a higher cap hit, and these numbers obviously include his sub-par rookie season in Chicago. This is certainly an overly simplified analysis and there are other factors to consider, but the difference between Niemi's 0.925 SV% and Rinne's 0.928 over 1600 shots against amounts to about five goals. Finding five goals of surplus value on the free agent market for $3.2 million is far from impossible so if Niemi is overpaid, it isn't by much (unless you want to argue that Rinne is earning vastly more than he's worth). For all the criticism directed at him (some of it legitimate, some of it ridiculous), Niemi largely excels at the only area we should seriously consider when evaluating him: stopping pucks.
Sure, his style is aesthetically unpleasing, prone to yielding rebounds and susceptible to allowing goals created by lateral passing plays. But looks aren't nearly as important as results when you're an NHL goaltender and despite most subjective evaluators coming to unfavorable conclusions about Niemi, he keeps pucks out of the net (which, again, is his job description) at a rate only surpassed by the league's netminding elite. Of course we've only looked at even-strength numbers so far in this post and the turd in the salad (that's a saying, right?) has most certainly been Niemi's penalty kill performance. Since Nemo arrived in San Jose, 22 goaltenders have played at least 500 4v5 minutes and only three of them have posted worse save percentages in that game state than Niemi. At the same time, we know how inept the Sharks have been shorthanded each of the past two seasons and that team effects play a much larger role on the penalty kill than at evens. Still, as with the team at large, performance on the PK will be one of the biggest questions facing Niemi heading into the 2013 season.
Another question might involve whether Niemi's limbs can remain intact through the end of April because it's a safe bet Todd McLellan will ride him and ride him hard during this shortened season. In 1994-95, the last time the NHL schedule contained just 48 games per team, 8 of the 26 starting goalies in the league appeared in at least 40 of their teams' games and 4 more appeared in at least 38. It wouldn't surprise me one bit to see Niemi be one of those starters this time around; after all, the 68 games he played last season pro-rates to 40 in 2013. While concerns about the impact of fatigue on Niemi's play are valid, it's also important to keep in mind this season's schedule isn't all that compressed. As James Mirtle pointed out earlier this week, teams will only average about .08 more games per week than they would in a normal season. Given that Niemi only appeared in 10 games in Finland during the lockout, even starting all 48 would represent a lighter workload than his usual October-through-April slate.
2013 Cap Hit: $587,500
Expected Role: Mop-up duty, faceoff charter, meth squirrel
Depth Chart Position: Backup goaltender
Poor Thomas Greiss. After dutifully accepting his exile to Sweden during the 2010-11 season and then returning to San Jose to sign a discounted two-year contract with the Sharks, he'll likely play out the final half-year of that deal continuing to be little more than a scarcely-used backup. In his first season reprising his role as the team's No. 2 since 2009-10, Greiss was extremely impressive at even-strength and not-so-impressive on the penalty kill last year (where have we heard that before?). As an excitingly aggressive and athletic goaltender, Greiss is pretty much the diametric opposite of Niemi between the pipes but was still able to compile numbers in limited action during the 2011-12 season that weren't far off what Niemi provided the team as a starter.
Granted, Greiss barely played—appearing in just 19 games, most of which came against the likes of Columbus and Edmonton—and wasn't much more active in his days playing behind Evgeni Nabokov, so we don't really have a great read on what Greiss actually is. The evidence so far suggests he's an above-average backup with the potential to be more than that but, unless Niemi sustains an injury or implosion, it's unlikely Greiss receives the opportunity to prove himself in the San Jose crease. I'd be surprised if Greiss starts more than eight or nine games this season, most of them likely to come in the second half of back-to-backs and/or against the conference's lesser lights. Remember that his 19-game total from last season is inflated a bit since Niemi was injured to start the year. It's unclear where Greiss will turn as an unrestricted free agent this offseason, but here's hoping some team takes a chance on him in a platoon situation. To my admittedly untrained eye, there's real talent here.