It’s official. The San Jose Sharks will welcome Stanley Cup-winning goaltender Antti Niemi to the fold on a one-year, $2-million. And I say, good on them.
Say what you will about former No. 1 Evgeni Nabokov – who bolted for $24 million over four years in the Kontinental League – but he was one of the most consistent post-lockout performers at his position. Yes, San Jose has had its well-documented playoff problems, but there’s hardly been a better regular season squad in recent seasons and for that Nabokov deserves credit.
The Sharks have averaged 109 points per year since the lockout and, after taking hold of the No. 1 job three seasons ago, Nabokov averaged 44 wins. For his NHL career he had a 2.39 goals-against average and a .912 save percentage in 563 games. No too shabby.
After signing tender Antero Niittymaki July 1 to a two-year, $4-million contract, San Jose seemed ready to go with a duo of him and young Thomas Greiss in goal. But the former is streaky and the latter has just 19 games of NHL experience, so GM Doug Wilson is essentially covering his bases with Niemi. And he’s doing so smartly.
San Jose’s netminding tandem is now built around two Finns who should offer each other some friendly – but still serious – competition. The older, 30-year-old Niitymaki, is a former Olympic and Calder Cup playoff MVP who outperformed Mike Smith in Tampa last season. But he’s never really been a bona fide No. 1 in the NHL because of his tendency to go through ups and downs, so Wilson must have been twitchy.
Niemi, 27, was famously driving a Zamboni to make ends meet while playing Division II hockey in Finland just a few years ago. This summer he was cut loose by the cash-strapped Blackhawks after an arbiter awarded him a $2.75 million salary.
He has just 42 games of NHL experience himself, but now he’s landed with another top-end Western Conference team, one that hasn’t had to gut its roster this summer and has to be considered the de-facto No. 1 because of his play last season.
So things seemed to have worked out for all involved – except Niittymaki, who is likely not very happy today. San Jose gets a proven playoff performer with something more to prove and Niemi gets a home on a top-notch squad that offers a real chance for him to exact some vengeance on Chicago.
THE KOVALCHUK CONUNDRUM
On a totally unrelated topic, when did the NHL grow a pair?
It seems like just yesterday this league was entirely a reactionary entity, one that seemed almost scared to do anything that might ruffle feathers, let alone overturn the apple cart. No longer.
The NHL is now reportedly willing to use extreme tactics to get what it wants. That’s quite a change of events. The New York Post’s Larry Brooks reported the NHL has issued an ultimatum to the NHL Players’ Association: agree to new, non-collectively bargained contract rules moving forward and we’ll let the Ilya Kovalchuk and Roberto Luongo and Marian Hossa deals pass our sniff test, don’t agree and those contracts – worth $211.9 million – are voided and/or under investigation, to say nothing of some others.
Whether a well-crafted plan or just dumb luck afforded the league this leverage, well, just trade in those big brass ones for some shiny horseshoes and thank your lucky stars that we’re seeing the beginning of the end of these types of deals. Because it’s exactly these types of contracts that could very well lead to another work stoppage in 2012.
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