Stalock’s Pressure Will Benefit Niemi

The Sharks goalie competition arguably reached a boiling point last season during the series against Los Angeles in the first round. Antti Niemi, the Sharks starting netminder of last season and the starter this season fell victim to the team that would eventually win it all. His backup, Alex Stalock, performed well during the season, but still couldn’t solve the Kings. But just because Stalock’s numbers were pristine doesn’t mean that the Sharks should kick Nemo to the curb.

Examining Antti Niemi’s “Poor” Season

A lot of fans and media outlets were calling for Stalock when the wheels came off in the playoffs. I was one of them. But having Stalock start a game in the playoffs is not the same as making him your everyday starter in net. Antti Niemi earned his place on the ice. His “sub-par” season wasn’t even that sub-par.

Sharks goalie

Was Niemi even that bad? (Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports)

Sure, Antti Niemi was rattled and rocked by the Los Angeles Kings. But eventually, the entire league became victims of the Kings. If there is one team you would be ousted by, let it be the eventual Stanley Cup champs, right? But his season was still pretty solid.

Antti Niemi posted a .913 save percentage last season which was right at the league average but also ranked second in the league in wins while playing in the second most games. Despite the massive amount of time on the ice, Nemo held his own. In fact, if you take out goaltenders who didn’t start 50% of the season’s games, Niemi ranks in the top 10 of goals against average. And that is one more thing to consider, so many teams had goalie problems due to injury and controversy. The Sharks goalie has shown how durable he is. His entire career with San Jose featured him playing in over 70% of the games for Team Teal.

Is Stalock Starter Material?

sharks goalie

Stalock posted nice numbers, but are they sustainable? (Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports)

Alex Stalock was a great commodity to have as a backup in San Jose. The Sharks goalie was a pleasant surprise when Todd McLellan gave Niemi the night off. Stalock recorded a .932 save percentage and a 1.87 GAA. He won 12 times as well. That stat puts him ahead of household names like Pekka Rinne, Cam Ward, and Ray Emery (the superstar backup of Chicago just a season ago).

The Most Popular Guy in Town

We cannot ignore the old adage of “the backup is the most popular player on the team” (made famous by Archie Manning about QBs in football). For instance, let’s look at a similar scenario across the country: the New York Rangers. Cam Talbot has shockingly similar numbers to Alex Stalock, in fact, they are even better! Talbot had a .941 save percentage in 19 starts while sporting a 1.67 GAA.

Sharks goalie

Cam Talbot impressed many while backing up Henrik Lundqvist last season. (Don McPeak-USA TODAY Sports)

Now, before you jump all over me with “are you really about to compare Henrik Lundqvist and Antti Niemi?” rage, take a look at the results of the starters’ seasons:

  1. Niemi: 39 wins, 17 losses, 7 OT losses, .913 sv%, 2.39 GAA
  2. Lundqvist: 33 wins, 24 losses, 5 OT losses, .920 sv%, 2.36 GAA

Those numbers aren’t too far off. I wonder how the discrepancy between starter and backup compares.

  1. Niemi to Stalock: +.019 save % and +0.52 GAA
  2. Lundqvist to Talbot: +.021 save % and +0.70 GAA

Weird, the Rangers backup actually posts a larger benefit to his team than the proclaimed King Henrik.

Separating Starters and Backups

A multitude of factors come into play when searching for reasons that backups numbers can be better than their first team counterparts. Fewer starts and fewer minutes mean a small sample size for stats. Backups don’t always get to play the elite teams in the NHL. And teams play differently in front of backups.

Sharks goalie

Nemo deserves the starting job (Gary A. Vasquez-US PRESSWIRE)

The sample size is easy enough to examine. Antti Niemi played in 64 games this season. He played the 3rd most minutes in the league. He has a much larger opportunity for his numbers to take nosedive than Alex Stalock (55th most minutes among goalies).

Next, take a look at Stalock’s schedule. 10 of his 24 games were against non-playoff teams. Talbot spent over half his games against non-playoff teams! The competition is much lighter for these guys.

Finally, the defense in front of the goalie counts. When you can’t count on the guy behind you as much, your instinct is to tighten up and take the pressure off him. According to behindthenet.ca, Stalock benefited from a better team than Niemi did. Stalock faced less shots per 60 minutes than Niemi did and the backup Sharks goalie watched as his team shot the puck more against opponents.

Sharks Goalie Controversy? Not So Fast

There is nothing wrong with having a goalie behind Nemo that can hold his own. In fact, it is of great benefit to the team. The Sharks don’t have to throw away games when they rest their starter. And unlike the hilarity that was the Luongo-Schneider saga in Vancouver (follow this link to summarize that nicely), the Sharks organization can handle this well.

Sharks goalie

Probably the most famous goalie controversy was nothing like San Jose’s current situation (Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports)

A goalie controversy is not created when a team is winning and both goalies are playing like rockstars. A goalie competition however, brings the best out of both players. Stalock can continue to play amazing hockey as a backup and Niemi will still keep his Sharks in it. And if Stalock starts to string together wins and Niemi stumbles, Todd McLellan can dangle the carrot of three straight starts for Stalock as a motivational tool.

Kenneth Laws

Kenneth Laws

Kenneth is a graduate of the University of San Francisco in Politics and Chemistry. But his passion in life has always been hockey. He has played since he was four and even coached a few teams. Kenneth writes for the San Jose Sharks at thehockeywriters.com
Kenneth Laws
Through 6 games, Burns had 7 points. However, his Shots For% is 40.76 at 5v5 against 85.71 on PP. 4 points in each situation w/ one tonight - 1 day ago
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Kenneth Laws
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6 Comments

  1. Thanks for the info on JP Anderson ! I’ll look forward to seeing him at the Sharks practices. He’s the kind of player that the Sharks should give a opportunity to .

  2. The numbers are what they are but I think Niemi’s best days are behind him. I’m not saying Stalock is going to be a all-star but he deserves a shot at # 1. Niemi often let in a soft goal early, which hurt the team. The Sharks played better in front of Stalock and not because they needed to tighten up. They seemed more comfortable with him back there.
    Niemi is the poster child for the type of Sharks player that should be moved. He’s a veteran who didn’t step up when needed. Doug Wilson should have moved him in the offseason. Hopefully the Sharks will bring in someone to make training camp interesting and light a fire under Niemi. He needs to be MUCH better this year.

    • Kenneth Laws says:

      Jay, thanks for the read and the feedback. I definitely agree that Niemi’s best is behind him, but I tried to focus more on the people calling for Stalock immediately. I don’t think Alex is starter material. He is a great backup and will be again this season. I like your idea of bringing someone in. JP Anderson really impressed me during the scrimmage and prospect camp. I’d like to see him up with the first team at some point. In the end, I see TMac giving a lot more time to Stalock and using that to motivate. And I think Nemo has a good season. Maybe not a Vezina-worthy, but good nonetheless.

  3. Andrew Bensch Andrew Bensch says:

    Niemi deserves every opportunity based on his track record, but it shocked me during his cold streaks that Stalock hardly ever got even two starts in a row. Perhaps playing all these games every year isn’t ideal for Niemi. He may be a work horse, but the Sharks might need to save him from himself.

    • Kenneth Laws says:

      Late January and February, Stalock saw a lot more time. I see closer to 30 games for Stalock with maybe 20-25 starts. That is only if Stalock can replicate his good season. Have you watched JP Anderson at all, Andrew?

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