Last season a number of followers assumed I was “anti-Niemi” but that couldn’t be further from the truth. I’m a big fan of both Niemi and backup goaltender Alex Stalock. With Niemi having a down (but still decent) season last year and the rookie Stalock sparkling in almost every start, it made little sense to me why Stalock didn’t get more action. He only made five starts in the first three months of the season, which for any team is an absurdly low amount for a No. 2 goaltender. Generally speaking, netminders have had more playoff success when carrying a lighter regular season load. Rarely do goaltenders start over 70 games these days but the Sharks had Niemi on that pace during the first half last season. The league is trending away from iron man goaltenders. In 2009-10, six goalies started over 70 games, in 2010-11, just three, in 2011-12 only two, and last year none. Niemi eventually tied Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury for the league lead with 64 starts last year as Stalock received more work down the stretch.
Due For A Monster Year
As predicted numerous times here at The Hockey Writers this offseason, Niemi is going to have a monster year for the Sharks. He has bounced back with a terrific season each time people have doubted him since winning the Stanley Cup with Chicago. In his first year with San Jose he posted a terrific .920 save percentage. After a down (but again still decent) year in 2011-12, Niemi bounced back again with a Vezina nomination in the lock-out shortened 2013 season. This year the trend says he is as motivated as ever to prove doubters wrong, especially being in line for a new contract next season as an unrestricted free agent.
Shutout the Kings
It should be a surprise to no one how well Niemi played in the opener Wednesday night in Los Angeles. The 31-year-old No. 31 in white was sharp from the get-go and turned away all 34 shots that came his way, earning his 28th career shutout. In the final moments he had to be stellar as the Kings finished the game with a two-man advantage. On this night, nothing short of a spectacular shot was beating Niemi. When the Finnish netminder is on his game, shooters better lift the puck off the ice because nothing is getting through along the surface. Niemi’s biggest save of the night was on a wrap around attempt where he denied Jeff Carter who appeared to have a slam dunk. Niemi’s underrated athleticism allowed him to do the splits and keep the puck out right as it got to the goal line. At the time, the Sharks held just the 1-0 lead. Niemi weathered the storm and allowed the Sharks to tack on some insurance to put the game away comfortably, with a 4-0 win.
Not Enough Credit
There is no doubt Stalock will get more starts this season, but those assuming him to take over the starting job are severely jumping the gun. As awesome as Stalock was as a rookie, and as great as he is at playing the puck, he is still a huge question mark. He never produced great numbers in the lower levels and has started just 18 games in the NHL. Niemi meanwhile is a sure thing. Even in his “down” years he still provides a .913-.915 save percentage which is typically the middle of the pack type numbers. Not terrible by any stretch. At his best though, which happens every other year for Niemi, his save percentage jumps over .920, catapulting him more or less into the top-10 goaltenders in the league.
Give Him Another Start
Niemi will certainly need to be better in the postseason where has really only been consistently strong once for the Sharks (2013). However, we’re a long ways away from the postseason. Just one game has been played and Niemi was perfect in the opener. Any time a goaltender gets a shutout, he ought to start the next game. Stalock will get a genuine chance to push for the job, but right now it is still Niemi’s and he deserves to get the nod in Saturday’s home opener after such a sparkling debut.