We are on to part 4 of our season review, covering the goalie position. To catch up on any of the first 3 articles, here are the subjects with links:
1. Main Points
In goal, it was a season of three stories.
The first story is starter Antti Niemi. Niemi has been a workhorse in each of the past 2 seasons. For the second year in a row, he started over 60 games. His save percentage remained almost identical in the two seasons, going from .913 to .914. Niemi is in the top 5 for goalie starts over the past 2 seasons, but he was not in the top 20 in save percentage for either season. For Niemi, the story remained the same.
Niemi was the subject of trade rumors prior to the trade deadline, and there was probably truth in at least some of that rumor. Doug Wilson offloaded 3 players with expiring deals in that same timeframe. Like the 3 that were traded, Niemi’s contract expires this summer. His play has not earned an extension and while one may yet happen, it does not appear probable at the moment.
One the plus side for Niemi, he did finish the season with some of his best play of the year. In early March, Niemi gave up just 1 goal to the Penguins on 40 shots, then proceeded to win a tense 8 round shootout, only letting in 1 tally. He backed that up 2 nights later with a shutout over Nashville. In 6 of his final 11 appearances, Niemi gave up 1 goal or less.
The second story is about Niemi’s back-up, Alex Stalock. It is very different. Stalock had strong year in his prior season, but had a poor season this year. His save % dropped from .932 to .902. Stalock saw infrequent action, limiting his chances to get into some sort of groove this season. At one point, he went nearly a month between starts. A goalie competition was supposedly in the cards at the start of the year, but that never really took place. Both Stalock and Niemi began the year well. Head Coach Todd McLellan (most likely) made the call to go with Niemi about half a dozen games into the year and Stalock spent most of the season riding the bench.
Stalock’s good season in limited action during the 2013/14 campaign seemed to be a result of good chemistry with his defense. Quite often, the defense would sweep away a rebound in front of an open net following a Stalock save. Last year, the Sharks used only 7 defensemen the entire season and it was an experienced group. Perhaps this allowed for good communication and familiarity between Stalock and his defensemen. That sort of chemistry between goalie and defense was absent this year, possibly owing to the numerous changes on defense. Or it is possible that whatever good fortune Stalock experienced in the prior season simply went away.
Stalock has one more year remaining on his deal. It was foolish for the Sharks to not give Stalock the opportunity to get take the nets for an extended look. Had he taken the nets for a month or so, the team would have a much clearer answer on whether he can become the guy. As of now, the Sharks have no basis for a definitive answer on Stalock, which is their own fault.
The third goaltending story, albeit the shortest one, was easily the sweetest. When health issues briefly felled both Niemi and Stalock, Troy Grosenick was called up from the minor league club in Worcester and got a chance to play in his first NHL game. In Carolina and in front of his emotional family, Grosenick pitched a brilliant 45 save shutout. It was the best goaltending effort of the season for the Sharks and probably among the best single game efforts in the entire league. Alas, Grosnick’s next start in Buffalo did not go so well, and he returned to the minors after that. For the Sharks it was back to their regularly scheduled goaltenders.
What Comes Next?
The Sharks have a history of not overpaying goalies or signing them to lengthy deals. If the team sticks to the current stated philosophy of not trading draft picks or promising prospects, that will limit their ability to acquire a goalie off another roster. I expect at least a few potential starting goalies to be on the block, possibly including Cam Talbot of the Rangers and Craig Anderson of Ottawa. The Sharks interest (or lack thereof) in a trade will be based upon the constraints they place upon themselves.
There appears to be a shortage of starting quality goalies headed to free agency but also a shortage of openings on other teams around the league. Not a lot of supply but perhaps even less demand.
Given the market dynamics and the Sharks approach to the position, the Sharks may not have a lot of options. Niemi will not have a lot of good options, either. It is possible that Niemi played his way back into a deal with San Jose due to strong play in March and April. A modest short-term deal might work for both parties. It would be a ‘kick the can down the road’ decision, with both parties having more and perhaps better options a year from now.
What is very clear, neither goalie has made a case for being a long-term solution.
Among an array of choices, the Sharks will make at least one significant goalie decision in the offseason. It may be among the more interesting decisions the Sharks will make.