The San Jose Sharks moved swiftly to replace longtime goalie Evgeni Nabokov on Thursday, signing veteran Finnish goalie Antero Niittymaki to a two-year, US$4-million deal.
Sharks general manager Doug Wilson targeted Niittymaki in the opening minutes of free agency, and Niittymaki was thrilled that the first inquiry about his services came from Western Conference finalist San Jose, which won the Presidents’ Trophy in 2009 and finished one point shy of the NHL’s best record last season.
“When they announced that they’re not going to offer Nabokov a new deal, every goalie in the league knew a spot was open,” said Niittymaki, who spent last season with Tampa Bay after starting his NHL career in Philadelphia. “Obviously you’re hoping, because the Sharks have been one of the best teams in the league for a couple of years now, that you get that call.”
Nabokov was the Sharks’ starting goalie for most of the past decade, but the club announced last month it wasn’t re-signing him. Wilson believes high-priced starting goalies are unnecessary luxuries in the NHL’s salary-cap era.
When San Jose set to work finding a lower-priced goalie in the mould of Chicago’s Antti Niemi and Philadelphia’s Michael Leighton, Niittymaki stood out.
“We felt that we wanted to go get the guy that we wanted, and we were certainly proactive in that,” Wilson said. “We thought we’d be a pretty attractive fit for him. We’re excited to have him for our tandem, because we do have faith in our young goalies.”
Niittymaki will join Germany’s Thomas Greiss and minor-leaguer Alex Stalock in the Sharks’ goaltending competition this fall. San Jose has ample experience with Finnish goaltenders after fostering the careers of Miikka Kiprusoff and Vesa Toskala under the guidance of the late goaltending coach Warren Strelow.
Niittymaki spent last season with the Lightning after playing four full NHL seasons with the Philadelphia Flyers. The Finnish goalie went 21-18-5 with a 2.87 goals-against average last year, but knew he probably wouldn’t return to Tampa Bay.
“If you get a chance to play for one of the best teams in the league, you can’t really pass that up,” Niittymaki said. “I was in Tampa last year and missed the playoffs, and it kind of leaves a bad taste in your mouth.”
The 30-year-old Niittymaki is 83-79-28 in parts of six NHL seasons, but Wilson also cited his successful history in the minors and the Olympics. He was the MVP of the Calder Cup playoffs in 2005 while leading the Philadelphia Phantoms to an AHL title, and he starred in the 2006 Turin Games, leading Finland to the gold-medal match while winning the Olympics’ MVP award.
“When we looked at the style and type of goalie, that broke it down a little bit,” Wilson said. “Then we went to the guys who had a winning history and had played in a certain type of environment, and Antero certainly jumped out at us.”
The Sharks used the money they saved on Nabokov to sign forwards Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski to long-term contract extensions last month.
San Jose lost free-agent forward Manny Malhotra on Thursday to the Vancouver Canucks, who gave him a three-year deal.
San Jose also signed Princeton forward Cam Macintyre to a two-year contract. While the Sharks will pay attention to the free-agent market, Wilson said it’s likely they’ll be more active in trade discussions in the next few days.