Sharks general manager Doug Wilson has clearly seen enough strong play out of Antti Niemi since the rocky beginning to his tenure with San Jose that he’s awarded the Finnish goaltender with new a four-year $15.2 million contract. Niemi was named the NHL’s second star for the month of February after leading the Sharks with a 10-2-0 record, a 1.89 goals-against average, and .934 save percentage. With a Stanley Cup already under his belt, the 27-year old goaltender will now earn $3.8 million per year beginning next season.
Niemi’s saga is well documented: after backstopping the Chicago Blackhawks to their first Stanley Cup since the release of The Guns of Navarone, Niemi was stiffed in favour of a cheaper and older Marty Turco and thus waited out until the Sharks came calling for his services to the tune of one-year and $2 million. Niemi wrestled with Antero Nittymaki for playing time until locking down the starting job late in December before the latter fell to injury in January. Since January 1, Niemi has gone 16-6-1 with a 2.02 GAA and an excellent .934 Sv%. The Sharks have vaulted to the top of the Pacific Division and Niemi may be the greatest benefactor of all after securing a new deal on Tuesday.
With the new contract in place, Niemi will now be paid more annually than Pekka Rinne, Jaroslav Halak, Kari Lehtonen, and Carey Price. Niemi’s current 2.44 GAA and .919 Sv% both rank 13th in the league, and are very respectable numbers in comparison to his peers. Niemi also boasts an impressive save percentage on the penalty kill at .888, well above the league average mark over the past several seasons of .866 (figure via Copper and Blue). The sample size is small, but in parts of two seasons Antti Niemi has effectively proven that he’s a quality NHL goaltender.
Still, the logistics of Niemi’s deal come as a surprise to many. Puck Daddy’s Greg Wyshynski cites the years, not the dollars, as the most surprising factor:
The surprise isn’t the money; that’s about what the raise would have been on the open market this summer for a Cup-winning keeper at his age and with his regular-season pedigree. Perhaps even more.
The years are the surprise. Not only because it bucks the trend around the NHL of treating the goaltending position as a short-term gig and a place to find cap savings, but because the Sharks have one of the deeper benches for goaltending prospects in the League.
Looking to the future, the Sharks have a lot of cap space tied up in a handful of players and little more than $10 million scheduled to come off the books at season’s end. Antero Nittymaki still has one year remaining on his contract at $2 million and goaltender of the future Alex Stalock has proven himself in the minors. Niemi’s recent play and new deal will be a roadblock for both Nittymaki and Stalock when they return from injury for next season.
The Sharks know the pains of playoff disappointment all too well. They had a goaltender with an impeccable regular season resume in Evegeni Nabokov who just couldn’t get it done in the postseason. In Niemi, they have a goaltender who’s been as far as you can go and emerged a Stanley Cup champion. For Wilson and the Sharks, they can only hope that Niemi provides their team with that stability in goal necessary to get to the promise land, because that’s what they’re paying him for.
With salary cap data from CapGeek