Niemi Doing More With Less This Season
The San Jose Sharks got off to a strong start in 2013 by winning their first seven games. Of course that was overshadowed by the Chicago Blackhawks gargantuan winning streak and before long the Sharks were just an afterthought among early season headlines. They followed that up with seven straight defeats as fans inched their fingers ever closer to the proverbial panic button.
The Sharks, however, have steadied the ship and look poised for another playoff appearance. And as brief as those appearances often are, it’s hard to deny just how consistent the team has been in the regular season over the past decade. This year the squad has a different feel about them. San Jose it seems is relying on goaltending more than ever before, and Antti Niemi has not disappointed.
Niemi hasn’t received as much attention as Craig Anderson or Sergei Bobrovsky, but his production in 2013 shouldn’t be overlooked. Niemi is on pace to set career highs in save percentage (.925) and goals against average (2.14), while currently sitting tied for second in the league with four shutouts and tied for first in wins with 23. The Finnish netminder has also faced the second most shots in the National Hockey League this season behind only Ryan Miller.
Getting peppered with plenty of shots is tough enough, but making difficult stops in pressure situations is even morechallenging. And what’s more challenging for a goalie than the shootout? Far too often valuable points are lost in this area and those teams that excel have a much greater chance of qualifying for the post-season.
Niemi’s play in the individual competition this year has been superb. He leads the league in shootout wins with eight and owns a 3-0 record on the road. To put that in perspective, although Niemi finished third in shootout wins last year, he had just eight victories and has equalled that total in this shortened campaign. Not only that, but Niemi has faced the second most shooters this season with 33. Of those 33 shots, he has only conceded nine goals for a .727 save percentage. That mark ranks third overall among goalies that have faced at least 20 shootout attempts for the year.
It’s easy to question the fantasy relevance for shootout statistics in many leagues, but think about it from the standpoint of wins. Obviously the more skilled your goaltender is in this part of the game gives you an advantage to pick up several bonus victories. As valuable as those extra points have been for the Sharks as it relates to the standings, Niemi owners have benefited from the wins as well.
Now the most impressive thing about Niemi’s game in 2013 has been his ability to thrive despite the lack of offensive support he has received from the Sharks. Typically San Jose is a scoring juggernaut and although there is still plenty of talent on the roster, they have not been producing at their regular standards. For instance, the Sharks are only 23rd this year when it comes to goals for. If you compare that to last year when they were 13th and the fact that before then they ranked in the top 10 for every season since 2007-08, that’s a considerable discrepancy.
After looking at the Sharks decline offensively as a whole, examining how their big guns are playing this season is also interesting. Many of San Jose’s top scorers have taken a drop in production. If this were a normal 82-game campaign, Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski, and Dan Boyle would be all on pace to finish with less points than they had in 2011-12.
Thornton leads the Sharks with 39 points, but that only puts him at 29th overall in the league. It’s very uncharacteristic to see a Shark that low in the NHL scoring race and you would have to go all the way back to the 2003-04 season to find a campaign where a San Jose player didn’t finish in the top 20. It remains to be seen if this is an anomaly of the shortened season or the beginning of a trend that will see the Sharks have to learn to score more by committee. Thornton still has the talent to put up big numbers and Couture is developing into an elite player rather quickly, so don’t be shocked if they produce at a higher rate in 2013-14.
There has also been a significant change with the San Jose defense recently that Niemi has had to overcome. Douglas Murray was dealt to the Pittsburgh Penguins nearly a month ago for two second round picks and was a force in the blocked shot department for the Sharks. In 2011-12 Murray only played in 60 games and still finished second on the squad with 143 blocks. This year he was averaging more than two per game before he was traded. Niemi, however, has continued to thrive in his absence and since Murray became a Penguin on March 25, the Sharks goaltender has given up more than two goals in a game only three times, while winning 10 of 14 starts.
Niemi was undrafted and it has taken plenty of time to earn the respect of many in the hockey community. Even after winning a Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks he still had his doubters. San Jose decided to take a chance on him and have been rewarded with consistent play. Slowly but surely Niemi continues to get better while often flying under the radar. Maybe that’s a good thing for this Sharks organization who hasn’t met high playoff expectations with the greatest results in recent years. San Jose would certainly trade a quiet regular season for a loud spring in 2013.
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