Thomas Greiss is a rare species of ex-Shark. Throughout franchise history, goaltenders who leave San Jose typically find themselves at the end of their NHL careers as productive netminders, whether they anticipate it or not. From Kelly Hrudey, Mike Vernon, and Steve Shields all the way through to Antti Niemi and Evgeni Nabokov, the list of longtime Sharks goalies who suffered a decline in fortune is long and varied.
Greiss — who once looked like a mortal lock to join that list — has suffered no such fate. This is his story.
Born and raised in the Bavarian town of Fussen, Germany, Thomas Greiss broke through to the top-flight Deutsche Eishockey Liga with the Kolner Haie in 2004. Haie means “shark” in German, so it was only fitting that Doug Wilson would select Greiss for the San Jose Sharks with the 94th overall pick in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft.
Greiss played the next two seasons in Germany, then came stateside in 2006-07 and backstopped the Worcester Sharks in the AHL. His play that first year was solid, and his development looked to be on track. But then, in 2007-08, Griess showed signs of trouble: in 41 games in Worcester, he posted a hideous .892 save percentage. At the NHL level, Greiss made his debut in 3 games for the Sharks -- and promptly allowed 7 goals on the 50 shots he faced.
San Jose clearly had no faith in the young netminder, nor in fellow young goalie Dmitri Patzold. In 2007-08, Nabokov started the first 43 games of the season before Greiss made his NHL debut, and Nabokov played an astounding 77 games in total that year. Convinced that Greiss needed more seasoning, San Jose brought Brian Boucher in at the trade deadline and re-signed him. Greiss spent the entirety of the 2008-09 season in Worcester.
The 2009-10 season was a clear opportunity for Greiss to seize the reins and anoint himself as San Jose’s goalie of the future. He was respectable in 16 games, posting a .916 save percentage. But Doug Wilson was frustrated with San Jose’s continual playoff failures, and insisted on more experience in net for 2010-11. San Jose signed Antero Niittymaki, and then shocked the league by signing Antti Niemi just before training camp. Greiss was the odd man out. So what did they do? The Sharks sent him to Sweden.
“We like Thomas a lot, but when a player like Niemi becomes available you have to acquire the asset when you can and you go from there. It pushes Thomas probably into the number three spot,” Wilson said. “I’d be disappointed if he wasn’t disappointed.”
I’m not joking. They assigned Thomas Greiss to a team in the Swedish Elite League, Brynas IF. “We feel that Thomas has a great chance to play a lot of games and continue his improvement with Brynas,” Sharks goalie coach Wayne Thomas told the press. Greiss posted respectable numbers for Brynas. He hated playing there, and complained to Sharks beat writer David Pollak: “Worcester was more professional.”
Luckily for Greiss, Antero Niittymaki was a disaster for the Sharks. His exile ended after that solitary year in the frozen north, and for 2010-11 he was entrenched as Antti Niemi’s backup. And for the next three seasons, he was precisely what San Jose was looking for: a stable backup. Across 29 games started (and 41 appearances in total), Greiss posted a .914 save percentage. But it was clear he would not get a chance to start with Niemi in the fold. In 2013, as an unrestricted free agent for the first time, Thomas Greiss moved on.
Inked to a one year deal with the Coyotes, ostensibly to back up stalwart goalie Mike Smith, Greiss still harbored ambitions of being a starting goaltender and put in work to that effect: "He does extra shootout stuff at the end,” Coyotes goalie coach Sean Burke said at the time. “When he goes in to play, I don't feel like there's a guy in that dressing room that doesn't feel like he's going to go out and have a good game."
In the spring, Mike Smith was injured, and Greiss became a starting goalie for the first time in his career. Firmly ensconced for the tail end of the season, Greiss played well enough to earn an offseason contract with the Penguins, who were real Cup contenders. He played 20 games in Pittsburgh under Marc-Andre Fleury in 2014-15, then moved on to the New York Islanders.
At last, Thomas Greiss found a home. He started the 2015-16 season backing up Jaro Halak, but Halak was injured in early March. Greiss dragged the Islanders to a playoff spot with some stellar goaltending. He posted an absurd .923 save percentage behind a porous Isles defense as they won their first playoff series since 1993 before falling to the eventual Cup winners, the Pittsburgh Penguins.
"He's got a real competitiveness, a real fire to him in the net," Islanders captain John Tavares said of Greiss. "You watch him practice and how long he stays out there to take shot after shot. I know how much pride he takes in stopping the puck and his expectations of himself. But he's a great guy to be around, a little laid-back so you've got to give it to him a little bit. He's been awesome."
The Islanders had a strange goaltending situation in 2016-17. Greiss, Jaro Halak, and JF Berube all fought for playing time. In the end, Greiss won out. Halak was waived, and Greiss led a late charge for a playoff spot under interim head coach that just fell short. But Greiss was rewarded with a three-year extension. While he’s splitting time with Halak, it’s clear Thomas Greiss is the goalie of the present for the Isles, as Doug Weight clarifies:
"In every situation, whether we had injuries, we had three goalies, he was playing, he wasn't playing, it's been professional. He works hard, he's a great kid, he's a big part of that room. More importantly to the onlookers, over the calendar year, 12 months, he's been in the top 20 percent of his goaltending fraternity. We're happy for him and happy for us.”