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Antti Niemi — A No-Risk, High-Reward Signing For The Pens

Niemi during happier times with the Stars.
Photo: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Coming off of back-to-back Stanley Cup championships, the summer of 2017 was expected to be a rough one for the Pittsburgh Penguins as the imminent departure of Marc-Andre Fleury in the expansion draft to Vegas loomed, as did the pending free agency carousel of Trevor Daley, Chris Kunitz, Nick Bonino, Justin Schultz and Ron Hainsey.

Two days into the official free agency period in the NHL, Fleury is the face of the franchise in Vegas, while Daley (Detroit), Kunitz (Tampa Bay), Bonino (Nashville) and Hainsey (Toronto) all left for greener pastures, while Schultz re-upped with the Pens for three more years.

It ?s sad to see guys whom fans have become so connected to in the last few years exit for different franchises, but that ?s the business of professional sports in today ?s day and age. But the faux outrage over the addition of former Vezina Trophy finalist and Stanley Cup-winning goaltender Antti Niemi at the start of free agency on Saturday has been quite confusing.

For most 2017, Niemi has been a name linked to the Pens as a possible backup behind standout goalie Matt Murray ? he of two Cup rings while still rookie eligible.

During the 2016-17 season with the Dallas Stars, Niemi was downright bad statistically, allowing 3.30 goals per game with an .892 save percentage while going 12-12-4 for a franchise that had Cup aspirations coming into the year.

At face value, those numbers look horrendous and could signal the end of the line for a former star goalie in the NHL. However, it ?s important to take a deep dive into his numbers, considering the Pens expect him to play between 30-40 games during the 2017-18 season backing up Murray, according to Jim Rutherford.

Prior to joining Dallas, Niemi never had a save percentage below .905 in heavy action.

In 2009-10, Niemi took over the No. 1 goaltending duties for Chicago and went 26-7-4 in the regular season with a .912 save percentage and 2.25 GAA for the Blackhawks. In the playoffs that year, Niemi went 16-6 with a 2.63 GAA and a .910 save percentage to help the Blackhawks raise Lord Stanley over the Philadelphia Flyers.

After winning the Cup, Niemi walked in free agency to the San Jose Sharks on a one-year deal. Weird for a goalie of his caliber to get just a one-year contract months after winning a Stanley Cup, but Niemi never faltered.

In his first year in San Jose, the Finnish netminder went 35-18-6 with a .920 save percentage and 2.38 GAA, leading the Sharks to the playoffs. During his five years in San Jose, Niemi won less than 30 games just once, winning 24 games in an injury-riddled 2012-13 season, while also posting a career average of 2.35 GAA in 296 games with the Sharks over five years.

Pretty darn good, no?

Alas, his time in Dallas went downhill fast, and I have to say ? most of that had to do with the defense in front of him, which left him out to dry more often than not.

How else to explain a goalie with a a career 2.32 GAA in seven years prior to Dallas all of a sudden jumping to a mark of 3.30 GAA last season?

Last season as a team Dallas allowed 3.17 GAA, which happened to be second-worst in hockey, barely ahead of the dumpster fire Colorado Avalanche at 3.37.

I ?m not going to pin Dallas ? struggles last season all on Niemi, but I also won ?t deny that he was bad. That being said, I ?m also not going to immediately trash this signing by Jim Rutherford due to the guy ?s stats from the previous season. This addition of Niemi on a one-year, $700,000 deal is an absolute steal any way you try to look at it.

Prior to the 2016-17 season, Niemi posted a 2.67 GAA for the Stars, signaling he ?s still a decent goalie, just not starter-caliber. In Pittsburgh, he won ?t have to be.

Really, this signing reminds me a lot of the Thomas Vokoun signing back in 2012-13 when the Pens took a cheap no-risk, high-reward shot on the veteran goaltender who ?s numbers were trending downward the previous two seasons.

In Pittsburgh, Vokoun found himself again playing the backup role, where he was able to thrive late in the season and into the playoffs, posting a 2.01 GAA in 31 career games for Pittsburgh.

I won ?t go as far as to say Niemi can do the same thing, but at 34 years old (at the start of the season) and less than 500 career games on his ledger, Niemi has the chance to really solidify the backup job behind Murray now that Fleury is in the Western Conference.

And really, looking at the goaltending market, who else would be a better option for the Pens at that term and salary?

Curtis McIlhenny? Michael Leighton? Jhonas Enroth?

No thanks. I ?ll take my chances with Niemi.

Who knows, this could pay off in a big way and the Pens have a serious trade chip at the deadline, assuming Tristan Jarry is ready for the NHL by then.

About Josh Carney (2 Articles)
Josh is currently the Sports Editor of the Glenwood Springs Post Independent in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Josh is a diehard Steelers, Penguins and Pirates fan. A graduate of Indiana University of Pennsylvania and Syracuse University, Josh also writes for Steelers Depot and 16 Wins a Ring.
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