Throughout the first month of the regular season Antti Niemi has been the driving force of the San Jose Sharks as they have jumped out to a 10-1-4 record, good for the second best point total in the NHL. Niemi has started 14 out of the Sharks 15 games, compiling a 9-1-4 record with a 1.88 GAA and .921 save percentage while firmly placing himself in the race for the Vezina Trophy.
This hot start has made it difficult to sit Niemi, but one must begin to wonder at what point regular season success will be outweighed by the potential burnout that playing in so many games could cause in the playoffs. After all the goaltender is on pace to play in a ridiculous 76 games out of an 82 game schedule, which is something that even most skaters do not complete.
With the Sharks looking like an all but certainty to make it to the playoffs in 2013, it is worth looking back at the career trends of Niemi and the potential Olympic factor to see whether this is something that should be worried about.
During his five year career Niemi has been a case study in the how playing fewer minutes in the regular season can be a prelude to postseason success. In 2009-2010 he played in only 39 games for the Chicago Blackhawks during the regular season before appearing in 16 more games in the postseason and winning his only Stanley Cup. This lack of appearances came down to the fact that the goaltender shared starting duties during the regular season with Cristobal Huet, but also served a role in keeping fresh when most others were fading because of fatigue.
When looking at the three seasons in between the 2010 Stanley Cup victory and now it appears as if Niemi has been brought down in the postseason by a huge allotment of games in the regular season. In this three season window he played in 171 of 212 regular season games for the San Jose Sharks, good for 81% of the teams games. Throughout this period he compiled an impressive 2.32 GAA, which then jumped up to 2.65 in 34 playoff games.
While this drop in play during the playoffs can not be solely placed on a massive amount of minutes during the regular season, there is certainly a strong lineage to be made considering his success during the 2009-2010 playoffs. It can especially be made during the current season, as this 81% total of games in the regular season played has jumped up to 93% through 15 games, a mark unheard of for someone not named Martin Brodeur.
The Olympic Factor
Another factor that must be taken into account when looking at the amount of games that Niemi has played in during the current season is that the 2014 Olympics are looming this February. While this will be a joy to watch for hockey fans of teams throughout the world, it should be a worrying factor for the goaltender and the Sharks. This is because he will be competing with Tukka Rask of the Boston Bruins to be Finland’s starting goalie, which could add as many as seven extra games to their respective game totals.
One must only look at the fact that no goaltender that has participated in the Gold Medal game at the Olympics to show the fact that the tournament has a lasting impact on the bodies of those who play in it. It is hard to see how this will not ring true for Niemi and the Sharks, as playing the seven games it could require to reach the Gold Medal game would take his total games for the season close to a eye popping 80 in 2013-2014.
A Final Determination
While there is no doubting that Antti Niemi has immense value to the San Jose Sharks during the 2013-2014 regular season, past history shows that he has played subpar in the postseason after handling a huge load of games in the regular season. On top of this fact there is significant reason to believe that playing in the Olympics has a negative effect on goaltenders who go deep into the tournament, which Niemi very well could do with Finland in 2014. With both of these factors in mind it would be very wise of Sharks coach Todd McLellan to begin giving more games to backup Alex Stalock.