In the Fear The Fin summer catalog, no product bandied about received more attention than defenseman. From the tough and rugged sturdiness of a premier couch that could handle all the weight in the world, to the sleek and stylish coffee table which looks oh so pretty sitting in your living room, this window shopping spectacular reached staggering levels.
And while the Sharks eventually went to a yard sale to purchase their furniture, reliable if not a little worn-in, there remains one big question surrounding San Jose this year:
How will the goaltending tandem fare in respect to Evgeni Nabokov's 2009-2010 campaign?
Before I get into this, there is a point I want to make clear-- I was in favor of letting Nabokov go this offseason. He did not significantly outplay his backups during his ten year career here, his age was increasing, and the cap space saved by letting him walk would have allowed San Jose to allocate dollars to more-pressing areas on the roster (defense).
But to understand this year's team, specifically the amount of goals that could be given up throughout the course of the season, we have to look at what Nabokov was able to accomplish last year. His .922 SV% was good for sixth in the league, and behind a defense that was in the lower-third of the NHL in terms of shots against (31.4 SA/G), it doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure out that the Sharks will have to heavily rely on their goaltenders once again to stay at the top of the Western Conference.
As Tyler Dellow of MC79 Hockey has shown, a three goal differential equals a standings point and a six goal differential equals a win. Using Niittymaki and Niemi's SV% last season compared to Nabokov's, and keeping everything else the same, we can attempt to estimate what sort of effects we would have seen last season if Nabokov was not on the team:
2009-2010 San Jose Sharks (Nabokov & Greiss)
Save Percentage: .918 SV%
Shots Against: 2571
Goals For/Goals Against: 257-209 = +48
Points: 113, 1st in Pacific & Western Conference
2009-2010 San Jose Sharks (Niittymaki & Niemi)
Save Percentage: .910 SV%
Shots Against: 2571
Goals For/Goals Against: 257 - 231 = +26
Points: 106, 2nd in Pacific, 4th in Western Conference
This is by no means a definitive study, or a purely scientific look at the team. There's no telling how Niemi and Niittymaki would have fared last season in San Jose behind the Sharks defense (for better or worse I should emphasize). But if we can take this at face value and assume they played at roughly the same level they showed during 09-10, San Jose drops to fourth in the Western Conference and starts their second playoff series on the road.
Now toss in the loss of Rob Blake this offseason to retirement-- do the Sharks give up more shots as a result, do they score less goals? I say they'll give up more shots (and, as a result, give up more goals), but I'm not sure they'll score less. Blake was a big part of the offense, but the hope here is that a full season of Jamie McGinn and Logan Couture can make up for the loss of Blake. The loss of Manny Malhotra also hurts here, whose 14 goals and 19 helpers should not be forgotten, but it's not a knockout blow to the team. I'd say the Sharks probably score at a rate similar to last season give or take a couple goals at year's end.
In summation, there's nothing here that I haven't already said. The Sharks are really going to rely on their goaltending this season to keep pucks out of the net, and the loss of Rob Blake is going to hurt. How much it hurts is going to be something we all eventually figure out.
Here's to Niemi and Niittymaki improving on their totals last season and doing exactly what Nabokov did during 2009-2010-- have a career year, previous performances be damned.