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.
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?
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.
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:
- Niemi: 39 wins, 17 losses, 7 OT losses, .913 sv%, 2.39 GAA
- 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.
- Niemi to Stalock: +.019 save % and +0.52 GAA
- 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.
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.
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.