Antti Niemi: To Trade or Not To Trade? Perhaps Minnesota?

The Perplexing Niemi

(Barbara Johnston-USA TODAY Sports)
(Barbara Johnston-USA TODAY Sports)

Antti Niemi is arguably the most perplexing goaltender in the entire NHL. The old school analysts love to point out his Stanley Cup ring as the main man between the pipes for the 2010 Chicago Blackhawks. However, outside the conference final in which he kicked butt (not coincidentally against San Jose), he actually wasn’t very good in those playoffs. Since then he has been mostly reliable in the regular season for the Sharks. He was even nominated for the Vezina Trophy for the league’s best goaltender in 2013. For the most part though, Niemi is the one big name Shark that has clearly dropped off in performance from regular season to the playoffs.

Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton get the most flack for not producing during the postseason, but it’s a silly narrative. Marleau’s PPG in the regular season is nearly identical to his PPG in the playoffs (.70 vs .75), and Thornton’s PPG in the playoffs is essentially the exact same as Jonathan Toews. As for Niemi, he is the one Shark who struggles come the postseason after typically doing well in the regular season. Over his San Jose career, Niemi’s regular season save percentage is .917. A very solid number. In the playoffs however, that drops to a disappointing .907. For reference purposes, of all the goalies thus far this season who qualify, St. Louis netminder Jake Allen is 36th in the league with a .907 save percentage. Chances are the 36th best netminder isn’t going to be good enough to backstop a Stanley Cup winner.

Most teams going deep in the playoffs consistently, have goaltenders with much better save percentages than Niemi. Jonathan Quick for example has a career .923 postseason save percentage. Corey Crawford, who took over for Niemi in Chicago, has a .920 save percentage in the playoffs, and Tuukka Rask sports a .930 playoff save percentage for the Boston Bruins. Thus far, Niemi has posted a save percentage of .919 or higher in three of his five regular seasons with the Sharks, but in only one out of four postseason’s has he posted a save percentage of anywhere near .919 or higher. Twice he has actually been under .900. That’s just not good enough.

Given that Niemi is in the last year of his contract, and the Sharks organization having long been high on backup goaltender Alex Stalock, will Niemi be moved by the March trade deadline? It is certainly possible. There are pros and cons to both keeping him and trading him. We’ll start with the pros and cons of keeping him.

Pros & Cons to Keeping Him

As yours truly mentioned ad nauseam during the offseason, Antti Niemi was due for a good season. Every other year for the Sharks he has posted a .920 save percentage or higher in the regular season. Going into this season he was coming off a downish year .913 save percentage, so combine his every other year success and need for a new contract, chances are he was going to be really good. Thus far this season, he has been really good. After shutting out the Nashville Predators on Saturday night, Niemi is now sporting a .919 save percentage. The pros of keeping him are obvious. He is playing for a new contract, and if he was ever going to repeat his best playoff performance from two years ago when he finished with a .930 save percentage, this would be the season. San Jose is playing great hockey right now, winning seven out of their last eight games. They still have the roster, if they add one more quality player by the deadline, to make a legitimate run at the Stanley Cup. It is certainly plausible for Niemi to be the backstop as the Sharks skate with the Cup in June.

There are however, the cons of keeping Niemi. If they keep him and he struggles again in the postseason, the sharks will have a burned another year of Thornton and Marleau’s careers on a goaltender who will have come up short in four out of five postseasons. If he plays well in the playoffs but the Sharks fall short of the cup, will San Jose be able to re-sign him? With the organization being so high on Stalock, will Niemi want to move on somewhere else for big money? He has only made $3.8 M the last few years with the Sharks. Are the Sharks prepared to lose Niemi as a free agent and not getting anything for him? If they don’t win the cup this year, and he signs elsewhere in the offseason, they will have missed a chance to get something for him.

Pros & Cons of Trading Him

Antii Niemi has proven to be one of the most reliable playoff goaltenders of the past two seasons. (flick/HermanVonPetri).
Antii Niemi has proven to be one of the most reliable playoff goaltenders of the past two seasons. (flick/HermanVonPetri).

If the Sharks do decide to trade Niemi by the deadline there are some cons to that move. Stalock has played extremely well in his brief NHL career but that is the problem, it is extremely brief. While Stalock owns a terrific .929 career save percentage, it has only come over 26 starts. That isn’t just a small sample size, it is a tiny one. By playing Niemi as much as they have both last season and this season, the Sharks have done themselves no favors in figuring out if Stalock can handle the every game load. That has been a complete and utter head scratcher for them not to play Stalock in more games. Moving Niemi would put the onus on an unproven goaltender, which is certainly a risk. However, when Niemi won his cup with Chicago, he was unproven, so it isn’t a crazy suggestion in the slightest. It is somewhat dangerous though, if the Sharks move Niemi and don’t acquire a veteran backup at the deadline and Stalock gets hurt, then they are down to current third stringer Troy Grosenick.

The pros to trading Niemi would be the potential to get a missing piece back in the deal. Perhaps certain players would require the Sharks to add in a draft choice, but the Sharks could use Niemi to acquire an NHL ready player. San Jose is in the market for either a right-handed shooting second pair puck mover, a top-9 right handed shooting right winger or perhaps a depth center. Now the majority of teams contending for a cup are rather set at the goaltending position. And many teams that would want a goaltender aren’t looking to move assets for a rental because they are not in a position to compete this season. However, there are a number of possibilities.

Possible Destinations

Let’s start with the least likely scenario but one that is fathomable nonetheless. As colleague David Lipscomb recently wrote, perhaps the injured Brian Elliott is fed up with his treatment in St. Louis. The Blues just signed Martin Brodeur but he is seriously playing on fumes. He is only a short term fill in solution, he isn’t the answer for St. Louis. The aforementioned Jake Allen is still considered the long term solution in net but he hasn’t yet shown he can be the guy. Perhaps the Blues feel they could use some more stability in net for this stretch run. Ryan Miller didn’t work out last year as a rental but Niemi has much more to prove than Miller did. It would be unlikely but not inconceivable for the Sharks to move Niemi and a second round draft choice to St. Louis for the injured Elliott, and perhaps Patrik Berglund. It would be a trade that could help both teams.

(Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports)
(Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports)

One would think the surprising Winnipeg Jets would be interested in upgrading from Ondrej Pavelec, who has not been very good over the years. He currently does have a respectable .914 save percentage, but is widely considered to be one of the worst No. 1 goaltenders in the league. For some reason the Jets organization continues to put their faith in him though, so a trade doesn’t seem likely. However it is difficult to imagine the Jets wouldn’t be willing to part ways with one of their defenseman if the return was right. With Jacob Trouba developing nicely on their blue-line, with Tobias Enstrom, and Zach Bogosian locked up long term, perhaps forward/defenseman rover Dustin Byfuglien could be moved. Again perhaps Niemi and a second round pick for Byfuglien who has just one year left on his deal after this season. Could also help both teams but doesn’t seem likely.

There is always the Philadelphia Flyers, who can never seem to get it right when it come to goaltending. While Steve Mason is having a good season with a .918 save percentage, backup Ray Emery is sitting at .899 with a significantly higher GAA as well than his counterpart. There have been rumors about Niemi to the Flyers in the past. Flyers GM Ron Hextall is a former goaltender himself, is he keen on rolling with Mason between the pipes? Perhaps Niemi would be enticing to an organization that long had goaltending issues. Flyers though are in the bottom third in the league in goals against despite Mason’s solid .918 so seems unlikely they would want to move a good defenseman for a goaltender. They are in the middle of the pack goal scoring wise, so doubtful they would give up on a forward like Matt Read for a goaltender. Seems like Mason will have to be their guy in nets.

Nobody in the Atlantic division would be interested in a No. 1 goaltender except for perhaps Ottawa or Buffalo at the bottom but they wouldn’t be interested in a rental. In the Metropolitan, one might think the Penguins would switch things up after all the criticisms towards Marc-Andre Fleury but he’s playing well this year and recently signed an extension. The three bottom feeders in that division are set with their No. 1 goaltenders so even if Niemi were signed past this year, none of them would be a fit. The Washington Captials have Braden Holtby as their No. 1, so wouldn’t be a real fit either. The Eastern conference landing spots for a Western conference goaltender are few and far between.

Finding Nemo A New Home

(Marilyn Indahl-USA TODAY Sports)
(Marilyn Indahl-USA TODAY Sports)

The best and only likely landing spot if the Sharks were indeed to trade Niemi would actually be the Minnesota Wild. Typically we always think of the Wild as being a team stocked with goaltending. However Nicklas Backstrom hasn’t been Nicklas Backstrom in a long time. Josh Harding has major health concerns and Darcy Kuemper is currently leading the Wild with an extremely underwhelming .906 save percentage. Minnesota is a team prime for a cup run but they could definitely use an upgrade between the pipes. They finally have the forward fire power, are a top tier possession team, and have Ryan Suter anchoring their back end. Picking up Niemi might be their final piece of the puzzle. The Sharks love themselves some Charlie Coyle, they knew what they had when they traded him to Minnesota in part of the Brent Burns deal. Once again, perhaps Niemi and a second rounder for Coyle? The young forward may be too high of an asking price but what if Niemi were to agree to a contract extension first? Niemi-Coyle swap would seem fair for both teams if that were the case. Coyle only has 11 points in 28 games but he is a big, big body and is still only 22-years-old. Both Niemi and Coyle are tremendously talented players at their respective positions but both have struggled at times. Wild need goaltending and the Sharks need a right-handed shooting forward to add to their depth up front.

22 thoughts on “Antti Niemi: To Trade or Not To Trade? Perhaps Minnesota?”

  1. I could see neimi being traded to Toronto for phanuef, kadri, and breneir. I think it would have to include a defenseman though.

  2. I’m not sure if Minnesota fans would be happy with a Niemi + 2nd for Coyle deal. Coyle is an important part of their team. Also, very rarely will you see a goalie traded for a skater like that it’s usually goalie for goalie (Anderson for Elliott) or in a package deal (Halak and Miller last year or Luongo trade). If you want Coyle back then you have to think the Wild would want Burns back and they send Kuemper your way.

    You might be able to get a pick. Bryzgalov got Edmonton a fourth round pick last year.

  3. I’d like to see Burns back on the right wing where he really is most valuable. The Sharks need someone like Yandle, that’s for sure. I’d definitely place Nemo on the trade table and see what happens.

    • I’ve definitely been a big proponent of moving Burns back to forward and bring in a defenseman to replace his second pair spot. However, if they can acquire a forward like Coyle, a right handed shot with top6 talent, than I wouldn’t be totally opposed to keeping Burns there. I just think it is easier to bring in an outside dman for chemistry reasons than it it is to bring in an outside forward. Dman has to adjust to one main partner, where as a forward has to adjust to two linemates and forward lines get juggled more often than pairs, so possibly getting used to three or four other forwards.

  4. This article is perplexing and time warped..something that should have been written at the end of last season for good reason..

  5. Keep in mind that Niemi is at best the third best goalie presently playing from Finland (pop. 5.4 million) and did not play 1 minute in the Olympics.

  6. I would love to see a Niemi for Byfuglien trade. Sharks would probably have to throw in a pick or a bottom six type like McGinn. Byfuglien is the kind of player a team needs of a playoff run. The problem is that the Sharks would then need to pick up a veteran goalie to backup / help Stalock. I worry that the Sharks will win just enough games to put themselves in a position where they would have to keep Niemi. That would be a huge mistake because Niemi will let us and them down again !

    • I think it is very possible that Niemi backstops the Sharks to the Cup if he stays. I don’t think it will happen, but it is certainly not crazy talk. I just think Stalock could do the same and using Niemi’s solid season plus maybe a pick or a depth player like you said to acquire another forward or defenseman is necessary for them to beat a team like Chicago.

  7. The shark dont need forwards they need a defensmen.
    for the last time stop talking shit about thornton and marleau. they are what they are great players for a good price. people just want to see them traded cause they WANT Them.

    • If they decide to move Burns up to forward they very much need a dman, but if they keep him there, right now he and dillon are playing well, that is a solid top 4 right now, and hannan is playing well on the third pair.

  8. Few of things.
    1. Those are the cherry pickingest of cherry picked stats.
    2. Your first one is incomplete. “In 14 playoff years, Thornton has never scored more than 3 goals” in any playoff year. In 14 playoff years, Joe actually has 24 goals…but he’s a play maker, so this shouldn’t be a concern.
    3. Your second was just flat out wrong before the correction. Joe has played in 15 elimination games (generally defined as games facing elimination) since 2006, and has 9 points (4G 5A). The stat you are cherry picking is next to useless, In the 6 games where the Sharks have averted elimination, Joe has 8 points. No players have good stats in games they lose compared to games they’ve won…that’s why they lose. Watch…In games where his team was eliminated, Sydney Crosby is pointless! That guy sucks.


    • yeah nine playoff games from various years of his career isn’t a great sample in the least. Plus, he was a beast in two recent elimination losses, STL and VAN

  9. If were talking about possible deadline trades the sharks need to try to make a move for Yandle. He only has 2 years left on his contract, we can take his 5 mil cap hit, and the coyotes look like they want to offload him. Well probably have to give up a high draft pick or two and a good prospect but it would be worth it as he can make a great pairing with Vlasic and it could gives us the flexibility to move Burns up to the wing if necessary. This would be the perfect time to trade Nieto as I feel like hes just going to be another Torry Mitchell, as they are both and work hard but just cant cut it as a top 6 forward. I know hes on the list of players the sharks don’t want to trade but if we can get Yandle it can give us that offensive boost to get us to the promise land.

    • Just don’t see Phoenix moving Yandle inside the division. Also not sure a left-handed puck mover with vlasic is the ideal pairing. Yandle is great, no doubt about that. Would be an upgrade for sure. And can move Burns up to forward in that case. Just don’t see that as a likely scenario. They also already have Burns on the top unit power play, a team outside the division with more pressing need for a puck mover and pp quarterback would probably make more sense.

      • Did you see how well Vlasic and Doughty played together? This would be a similar scenario except Yandle is left handed which isn’t a big deal at all in my opinion. Yandle is a much better puck mover than Burns and can be the dedicated QB for the PP because with him and burns on the points we have two big shots and can move someone like couture down to the 2nd PP unit to give us more depth with is all so important come playoff time. Never said it was likely I just said it was something that we should try to do.

        • Very feasible, I just like balancing the pairs with lefties and righties, and clearly the sharks do too, also as good as yandle is, i find it iffy to break up that top unit that is playing so well, the four of couture, thornton, pavelski, marleau been playing together on that unit for years.

    • He was a monster vs the Blues in 2012, scored a go ahead third period goal for that one point in Game 5. He was also the best player on the ice despite a separated shoulder in Game 5 of the WCF against Vancouver, 2013 vs the Kings, his line with Burns dominated the Kings all series long. You can make that argument if you want, but Thornton gives everything he’s got when the season is on the line. Picking out a 9 game sample, all losses for his team, and using points as your metric, that is a tough sell.

  10. I know this was about Niemi, but I got tangled on the comparison of Thornton to Toews. In 14 playoff years, Thornton has never scored more than 3 goals. In 9 elimination games starting in ’06, Thornton has 1 point.

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