Maybe Antti Niemi isn't so bad after all
America's favorite Finnish goalie on a team named after a dangerous animal with gills has taken a beating over the past couple years. Poor Niemi.
Antti Niemi is going to be the starting goaltender of the San Jose Sharks at the beginning of the 2014-15 season, and that's okay. The Finnish netminder is entering the final year of his contract with the Sharks after posting the worst save percentage of his career in San Jose. You know, a .913 save percentage, which was .001 worse than league average last year.
For perspective, had the Sharks started a goaltender who posted the league average save percentage last season they would have allowed 3.412 fewer goals. That's good for about half a win, according to Eric of Broad Street Hockey. That's the guy who is now working for the analytics department of an NHL team (allegedly THIS NHL team, by the way).
His backup, Alex Stalock, holds a .932 save percentage in a laughably small sample size in the NHL (24 games last year, 27 overall). Stalock's career .909 AHL save percentage combined with his minimal NHL experience is why he will face an uphill battle if he wishes to unseat Niemi as the starter (presumably he does). Beyond Stalock's short resume, the fact is that Niemi is a perfectly serviceable option in net for the Sharks.
This chart shows two things: First, that Niemi
always has a good year followed by a bad year and it will always be that way. Second, it shows Niemi's career save percentage has stayed pretty much consistent over his entire career. He's a career .916 goalie who played well enough to help the Blackhawks to their Stanley Cup win in 2010 and much, much better than that in the lockout-shorted season two years ago. The numbers are just fine.
The style a goalie plays is undoubtedly important when you're talking about the growth and development of a young player. Niemi is not a young, developing player. He has been a successful NHL goalie for five years playing a style that many find unappealing from a visual standpoint. I would prefer the Sharks employ a goalie who lets in soft goals from time to time with a .916 save percentage than a goalie who is more pleasant to watch with a worse career save percentage.
All that is to say that I don't care what a goalie looks like or how soft an individual goal is -- in the big picture (which is what we should base goaltending decisions on), Niemi stops plenty of pucks from going into the San Jose net. So let's try to not get too hung up on whether or not Niemi (or any goalie for that matter) steps up to make Big Saves or if a goalie lets in too many softies. In SV% we trust.
As I mentioned, this is the last year on Niemi's cap-friendly contract ($3.8 million hit in 2014-15, which is comparable to the contract of the worst starter in the NHL). This could very well be the Finn's last year in teal, as such I expect Stalock to see more action next season than he did last season. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 games sounds right, barring Niemi going on an incredible hot streak or Stalock being unbelievably bad. That competition is probably a good thing because it allows management to get a better feel for who Stalock is as a goalie going forward. Is he more like the .932 he posted last year or the .909 he posted in the AHL?
I can't wait for everyone's "Typical Niemi" tweets the first time he lets in a goal that is not approved by the A Good Goalie Makes That Save Council because I love a good laugh. Complaining about Niemi has been trendy the past few years, but it's also been kind of dumb.
Also, this was awesome: