Antti Niemi: The Evolution of a Star Goaltender

Antti Niemi Sharks
Antti Niemi certainly proved that he was worth the money during his solid 2012-2013 NHL season. (Gary A. Vasquez-US PRESSWIRE)

Throughout the early stages of the 2013-2014 NHL season the San Jose Sharks have been absolutely magnificent, getting off to an 8-0-1 record through nine games.  The credit for this start has largely gone to the team’s offense, which has averaged an NHL leading 4.3 goals per game and produced the sensation of the season in Tomas Hertl. But on the flip side of this offensive outburst has been the incredibly steady and impressive play of starting goaltender Antti Niemi, who has played every minute of the team’s great start.  This great run of play has firmly cemented Niemi as one of the best goaltenders in the NHL-if not the best-although getting to this spot has been a rocky road at best.

Early Career Downfalls

Antti Niemi was never supposed to even reach the NHL. During the opening stages of his career there were little indications that h would become anything more than an erratic, if sometimes spectacular goaltender that topped out in the Finnish pro leagues.  But the goaltender did not quit working, even taking up a job as a part-time Zamboni driver while working to get signed by a team in the SM-Liiga (the top professional hockey league in Finland).

Finally at the age of 22 his break came, as prior to the 2005-2006 season Pelicans offered him a job as their starting goaltender. Niemi would take the job, and begin a meteoric rise that has continuously seen pitfalls and questioning from his critics that has almost always been dispelled. In this stint with Pelicans the goaltender went on to help lead the team to one of the relegation spots in SM-liiga to a sixth placed position in the fourteen team league during the 2007-2008 season, in turn becoming one of the best goaltenders in Finland.

At this point in his career the goaltender was established as a highly successful goalie on the larger ice of Finland, and was suddenly becoming one of the hottest talents in Finland. But at the age of 25 his chance at the NHL surely had to come soon, as he was quickly losing prospect status. Fortunately for Niemi the Chicago Blackhawks were one team whom were in need of goaltending help, as they had just finished three points out of the eighth playoff spot during the 2007-2008 season in no small part due to the underwhelming play of Nikolai Khabibulin and Patrick Lalime between the pipes.

When Niemi was signed on May 5, 2008 then Chicago Blackhawks general manager Dale Tallon spoke of the goaltenders ability in a press release when he said,”Antti is one of the top European goaltenders. We like his size, athleticism, ability and the depth that this gives us at this position. We’re thrilled to add a young talent like Niemi to our stable of prospects.”

Shot With The Chicago Blackhawks

Even after signing though it was clear that Niemi would have to work his way into the starting picture, as the Blackhawks had signed Cristobal Huet during the same offseason with the intent of being their starting goaltender.  Niemi took this news in stride, playing 38 games with the Rockford IceHogs of the AHL and posting an 18-14-3 record with a 2.43 GAA and .913 save percentage. This return was not an organization rattler by any means, but it did earn Niemi his NHL debut during the season and firmly established him as the backup goaltender for the Blackhawks heading into the 2009-2010 season.  The goaltender was proving to his teammates and people around the league that he had the shot stopping ability necessary to play at the NHL level, and certainly had the drive of a top notch goaltender.

This drive kept Niemi going as a battle emerged between him and Huet throughout the 2009-2010 season, as many wondered who would simply provide better damage control in the net. Eventually as a result of a hot streak in the second half the starting reins went to Niemi to begin the 2010 playoffs, and his unofficial coming out party.  In 22 games he recorded a 16-6 record with a 2.63 GAA and .910 save percentage as the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup.

Still, winning the Stanley Cup was not enough for Niemi to warrant true belief in his ability from either the press, or Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman after the season. Both were still skeptical as to whether the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup because of Niemi, or in spite of him.  This was no further shown by the fact that Bowman and the Blackhawks decided that he was not worth the $2.75 million an arbitrator decided he would cost in 2010-2011, which would have made him the 14th most expensive goalie in the NHL.

A Move To San Jose

While everyone seemingly sat in agreement with the Blackhawks that Niemi was not even worth being paid the 14th best goaltender in the NHL, the San Jose Sharks swooped in.  On September 2nd, 2010, the Sharks and Niemi came to an agreement on a 1 year, $2 million contract, although he would once again enter training camp as second fiddle at the goaltender’s spot.

This time Niemi would initially be placed behind Antero Nittymaki, who was signed to a 1 year, $4 million deal during the opening stages of the summer.  By opening night the depth chart would flip upside down though, as Niemi once again showed the grit and determination that has followed him to win the opener and embark on a great first year in San Jose.  Over 60 games started throughout the season the goaltender compiled a 35-18-6 record with a 2.38 GAA and .920 save percentage.  Ultimately the season would again provide reason to doubt whether he was a top goaltender in the NHL though, as his 3.22 GAA and .896 save percentage in 18 playoff games was extremely underwhelming.

A solid regular season earned Niemi a new 4 year, $15.2 million contract that was well deserved.  During the first year of the deal Niemi started 68 more regular season games to great success, although once again he faltered in the playoffs.  At this point in time there was legitimate doubt as to whether the goaltender was ever going to be capable of becoming a top notch goalie, or whether he would fall just short as the critics wanted.

Step Forward In Shortened 2012-2013 Season

In what is a recurring theme Niemi once again faced heavy questioning prior to the shortened 2012-2013 season as to whether or not he was the right man to guide the Sharks to a Stanley Cup.  After all he had performed awfully when it counted most in recent years, and his unconventional style of play in the net did not look good on the eye.

But Niemi answered these questions in large part by coming into camp in great physical condition, leading Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle to say this to the San Jose Mercury News about his preseason preparation,“They were doing funky things out there on the ice, bringing in weights and doing all sorts of weird things. From when he left to the time he came back, it was just harder to score on him.”

Once the season got going it was clear that Niemi had taken a significant step forward for good, as was evidenced by his 24-12-6 record with a 2.16 GAA and .924 save percentage.  Much as the statistics would imply, Niemi was the rock for a Sharks team that struggled mightily offensively throughout the shortened 48 game schedule.  As a result of either injury or simply not being ready to perform after the lockout the offense scored the 24th most goals throughout the season, making it necessary for the goaltender to appear in 43 out of 48 games.

After being ignored for years the 2012-2013 season finally pushed Niemi into the public spectrum, as for the first time ever he was not on a team that dominated it’s opponents offensively.  This inclusion into the public’s mind was no further exemplified than when Niemi was nominated for the Vezina Trophy at the end of the year, although Sergei Bobrovsky would win the award. Still, it was clear that after the 2012-2013 season that Niemi firmly established himself in the discussion of the top goaltenders in the NHL.

Antti Niemi Firmly Established In 2013-2014

If any questions remained after the end of the 2012-2013 season as to whether Niemi could continue to be a top goaltender, the start of the 2013-2014 season has washed these doubts away. At the start of the season Niemi has played in each of the Sharks nine games, leading the team as they have let up the third fewest goals per game in the NHL at 1.7.  While goal stopping certainly will never get the same recognition as a high powered offense, it is clear that the Sharks will be buoyed by the fact that they will be kept in games even when their scorers do not produce.

Of course there will be those who continue to question Niemi even as he shows that his determination to stop pucks triumphs the fact that he plays with no conventionally accepted style.  But for those who do choose to do this it would be very wise to finally stop. After all how many times must this goaltender repeatedly best the expectations of others before the critics stop coming back?

In the case of Antti Niemi the answer to this question seems to be never.  But what also seems just as evident is that the goaltender relishes the criticism and setbacks that have followed him, and will continue to use it as motivation going forward.