Antero Niittymaki: The New Man in Goal

Few Sharks fans have heard of goaltender Antero Niittymaki. Fewer know where he played last season and even fewer know his resume. However, fans and experts are already suspicious about Doug Wilson’s first offseason acquisition.

Only one thing is for certain: Sharks fans will soon become accustomed to seeing the 2006 Winter Olympic MVP between the pipes and I have reason to believe we should not be too concerned.

The 30-year-old goaltender from Finland played for the Tampa Bay Lightning last season, starting 46 games, going 21-18-5. He was the last line of defense for a young and dreadful Tampa Bay defense that finished 27th in the NHL in goals allowed per game and 25th in the NHL with 80 total points.

Last season, Niittymaki started the year as Tampa Bay’s second-string goalie behind 28-year-old Mike Smith. Smith was bearable last season, but still seems plagued with lingering concussion problems dating back to the 2008-2009 season. Smith’s dire play paved the way for Niittymaki to handle the majority of the load.

Some hockey experts say Niittymaki was overlooked this free agent period, while others claim he is not a number one goalie and definitely not worth the two million dollars per season out of San Jose’s pocket.

The Sharks really had their picking this offseason. What goalie would not want to play for the Pacific powerhouse?

The 2010 free agent goaltender class was, of course, headlined by now former Sharks goalie Evgeni Nabokov, who signed with SKA St. Petersburg in the KHL on July 7th. The class also included Marty Turco, who just signed with the defending Stanley Cup Champion Blackhawks, Dan Ellis, Ray Emery, Chris Mason, Jose Theodore, and Vesa Toskala.

The Sharks did not wait long to sign Niittymaki; they jumped on him quickly, signing him on the first day of free agency. Apparently, Doug Wilson did not want to wait for the free agent market to play out. Was he possibly scared of losing out on Niittymaki? Patience may have landed him Antti Niemi (more on him later). Back to Niittymaki…

The Sharks new net minder’s last six seasons in the NHL have been, at best, mediocre. Looking at his 2006-2007 campaign in Philadelphia, he finished with a mere 9-29 record. He has a career 83-79-28 mark and a lifetime 2.98 GAA with a .903 save percentage. He is most notably known for winning the 2006 Winter Olympics MVP as a member of Finland, guiding them to the silver medal.

This past season, Niittymaki won seven of eight games from January 21 to February 9. During that stretch, Niittymaki posted a 1.08 GAA, including a shutout and .965 save percentage. He has the potential to be outstanding, but can he be consistent in the playoffs?

Wilson preferred Niittymaki this offseason because he believes his style of play is similar to that of Chicago Blackhawks goalie Antti Niemi and St. Louis Blues goalie Jaroslav Halak, who both had stellar 2009-2010 postseasons.

It will be interesting to see how Niittymaki plays behind the Sharks’ defense in his first season. As much as I would like to see the defense slightly upgraded, it is far better than the Lightning’s defense last season. Niittymaki’s numbers should improve if he can mesh with the defense early and fortify the back end.

That brings us to Antti Niemi. Niemi was just released by Chicago because they did not want to pay Niemi $2.75 million after an arbitrator ruled that was his worth for the 2010-2011 season. Should the Sharks have waited for the free agent market to play out? Did Doug Wilson jump the gun by snagging Niittymaki on the first day of free agency? For an extra $750,000 San Jose could have had Niemi, the reigning Stanley Cup champion goaltender between the pipes, possibly long term. But maybe Doug Wilson knows something we don’t.

Sharks fans won’t soon forget about the painful playoff disappointments, but Niittymaki may help ease the pain if he can be that stalwart in the playoffs that Sharks fans have been looking for. The Sharks are looking to bring the most coveted trophy in sports to San Jose for the first time because, in the end, it is only about the Stanley Cup.

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