I generally have a lot of time for San Jose Sharks GM Doug Wilson. He’s consistently built a highly competitive team for years (despite their playoff struggles) and his organization boasts one of the best drafting and development departments in the NHL. All that said, his recent signing of Antti Niemi to a four-year, 3.8 million/year contract looks like a bit of a misstep.
When I looked at the Steve Mason contract this past summer, I noted that his “success” as a rookie was based largely on an aberrant month. Mason rode a hot streak near the start of his career to a Calder Trophy win and, later, a multi-year, multi-million dollar extension. Of note is the fact that the kid has been below average again this season, sporting a .906 SV%.
Scott Howson probably paid more than he had to in that deal, but he at least limited the damage to just two years. It probably wasn’t even the most ridiculous bet made by a NHL general manager on a goalie this past off-season (that prize would go to Paul Holmgren for his Michael Leighton signing). However, the Mason contract is relevant to the Niemi signing in that a month-long outburst of excellent results is being taken as the true talent level of the player, rather than a sober consideration of the player’s results as a whole.
Niemi has just two partial NHL seasons under his belt and hasn’t even seen 2,000 ES shots yet. As such, it’s difficult to say with certainty just how good he really is, even when we look at the length and breadth of his work. That’s part of the risk of this deal: Niemi, although a “cup champ” remains relatively unproven.
The former Blackhawk managed just a .914 ES SV% behind the best team in the league last year, a decidedly mediocre rate hat placed him 27th in the NHL amongst goalies who appeared in at least 30 games (just behind Manny Legace!). This year, he’s managed a far more palatable .927 save rate at five-on-five, good for 13th in the league by the same criteria. His average SV% at ES so far in his career is .922, which is capable but not exceptional.
The thing about Niemi’s big jump up this season is it’s mostly based on a recent spike in his results. Through he first half of the year, Niemi was again mediocre and split time with the Sharks other ‘tender, Antero Niittymaki. The former Lightning goalie has been hampered by groin issues and was shut down in mid-January. The starters role fell to Niemi by default and he’s been excellent since, largely due to a February that saw him post three of his five shut-outs this year. Here’s a graph of his game-by-game save percentages this season:
As you can see, games 31-45 is mostly what’s floating Niemi’s save rate this year. His recent performance, as well as the Sharks parallel charge up the standings, is likely what convinced Wilson to make Niemi a more permamant feature of his roster budget going forward. For this to be a sensible gamble, Wilson has to assume that:
- Niemi’s recent performance predicts his future performance.
- Niemi’s results at the start of the season and his lackluster save rate from last year are not indicative of his true talent level.
- There won’t be similar, less pricey options on the free agent market for the next four seasons.
As you can probably guess, those are shaky propositions. Unless Niemi is the next Miikka Kiprusoff and is poised to suddenly bloom into a Vezina winner at the age of 28 years-old, chances are he’s a relatively average starter in the league and there will be cheaper options on the always flooded goalie market more than once in the years to come. A far more sensible deal would have been similar to what Ken Holland recently offered Jimmy Howard (who, incidentally, has a career ES SV% of .921): $2.25 per year over two years. Holland was probably aided in his negotiations by the fact that Howard has struggled recently, but that’s why it’s good to buy low rather than high. No doubt, Niemi’s agent was also armed with the fact that his client won a Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks, although that strikes me more as an argument against paying high prices for puck-stopping than anything else.
To be fair to Wilson, Niemi’s save rate has never dipped into “below average” territory the way Mason’s has (consistently) for the Blue Jackets, so there’s a decent chance he’s signed himself a league-average starter. The deal could pay off if Niemi’s save percentage continues to trend upwards as it has this season as well. There’s a better chance, however, that Wilson will simply be paying too much for his puck stopping for the next four seasons.