Niemi Right Choice for Penguins

People who have heard tales of the Dallas Stars’ goaltending woes over the 2016-17 season might be wary of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Saturday acquisition, but picking up goaltender Antti Niemi in free agency was the best response to the departure of Marc-Andre Fleury that Penguins fans could have hoped for.

Getting a player as a free agent meant that the Penguins didn’t have to lose any assets to fill the role of backup goaltender. And, after scouring this year’s free agent market, it’s clear that Niemi was the best of the options available to the Penguins.

2017 Free-Agent Goaltenders

Here’s a rundown of the goaltenders that were available in this year’s free agent market and what they ended up going for, ranked by their cost per year on their new contracts.

Years on contract Contract cost (Millions of dollars) Cost/Year (Millions of dollars) Games played Career SV%
Anders Lindback (NSH) 1 0.65 0.65 130 0.904
Antti Niemi (PIT) 1 0.7 0.7 423 0.913
Jeremy Smith (CAR) 1 0.75 0.75 10 0.888
J-F Berube (CHI) 2 1.5 0.75 21 0.9
Cal Peterson (LAK) 2 1.85 0.925 0  N/A
Ondrej Pavelec (NYR) 1 1.3 1.3 379 0.907
Ryan Miller (ANA) 2 4 2 709 0.915
Chad Johnson (BUF) 1 2.5 2.5 137 0.915
Anders Nilsson (VAN) 2 5 2.5 78 0.908
Brian Elliot (PHI) 2 5.5 2.75 372 0.913
Jonathan Bernier (COL) 1 2.75 2.75 252 0.915
Steve Mason (WPG) 2 8.2 4.1 463 0.911

The italicized players received contracts that sold for under $1 million per year. We don’t know exactly what price limit the Penguins had in mind, of course, but given that they will be paying Matt Murray a cool $3.75 million next season, they were most certainly eyeing the cheaper side of the available goaltenders.

Niemi’s Contract

As you can see, Niemi had one of the least expensive goaltender contracts signed on Saturday at just $50,000 above the league minimum. He was also by far the most experienced of any of the goaltenders whose contracts cost under $1 million per year.

Only one other goaltender with a contract under $1 million, Anders Lindback, had a full season of NHL experience. But Niemi, with eight full seasons and a Stanley Cup championship under his belt, still comes out as the winner here.

The other three cheap goaltenders had at best played portions of NHL seasons and Cal Peterson, who signed with the LA Kings, has yet to start in an NHL game.

Antti Niemi, NHL, Dallas Stars
Niemi was bought out by the Dallas Stars after a less than stellar season. (Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports)

It’s true that Niemi didn’t have a stellar year in Dallas last season. He tallied 12 wins and 12 losses. His save percentage was the lowest he had ever recorded for a full season at .892. But Niemi’s years of experience at an entry-level cost is a steal for the Penguins, who can hope that his performance will be better when behind a stronger team than the 2016-17 Stars.

He’s been in the NHL for nine years and provides experienced backup. That’s important because Matt Murray, despite his two Stanley Cup rings, will be facing down his first full season as the undisputed starter this fall.

Niemi Was the Best Choice

Would the Penguins have preferred to sign a bona fide starter, like Jonathan Bernier or Steve Mason, as their backup? Sure, that’d be great, but they simply can’t afford it. The Penguins didn’t lose Fleury to Vegas because they wanted to see him go. They lost him because they couldn’t afford to pay starter money to a backup, which is what Bernier and Mason will be making ($2.75 and $4.1 million on the year, respectively.)

Ex-Flyers goalie Steve Mason is signed on for the next two seasons with the Winnipeg Jets. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Had the Penguins traded for a backup goaltender, they would have had to give even more assets away from a team that feels like it’s slipping through their fingers (goodbye, Nick Bonino, Trevor Daley and Chris Kunitz.) By snagging one in free agency, they managed to give up nothing but one year of league-minimum salary. Niemi was the smart choice for a backup goaltender, and behind the Penguins, he’s set to improve from being questionable starter material to becoming a solid backup choice.