Niemi is a good goalie in a lot of ways, and a not so good goalie in others, which isn’t all too dissimilar to most goalies in the NHL to be completely honest. Some goalies are great at covering the angles, others have phenomenal fundamentals. While others don’t rise to the occasion in big situations, or give up juicy rebounds. Nobody can be great at everything, no matter how much we want them to be. And Niemi is certainly no exception. In Chicago he was great at keeping the puck out of the net, but in San Jose he’s had moments where he’s look anything but average. But why?
If you look at the defensive corps they had in Chicago, it was flat out on another planet. Campbell, Keith, Byfuglien, Seabrook, and a young Hjalmarsson; and they all played 77 or more games with the exception of Campbell who played 68 games. But the other thing they had was great team defence that did an amazing job of tying up lose sticks in front of the net and playing man to man everywhere else on the ice. In San Jose we do not have that caliber of defence, not even close. And our team defence has been anything but average since Niemi got here, and he has paid for it more than anybody else in the franchise, save Jay Woodcroft (who I think will get the axe this summer). I believe Niemi is a victim of his surroundings and is being unfairly crucified by the fans and here’s some numbers to back me up.
In Nabby’s last year with us in 2009-10, he posted an impressive record of 44-16-10 in 71 games played with a 2.43 gaa and a .922% and 3 shutouts. That same season Niemi posted a 26-7-4 record in 39 games with a 2.25 gaa and a .912 and 7 shutouts. Very impressive numbers, with the exception of his save %. For the season as a team the Sharks scored 257 goals and allowed 209 while Chicago scored 262 and allowed 203, very comparable numbers. But Chicago was better in the post season which is why they moved on and we didn’t. The following season in San Jose Niemi posted a 35-18-6 record in 60 games with a 2.38 gaa and a .920% with 6 shutouts, better than what Nabokov did the previous season. Good enough to earn us a 2nd trip to the conference finals. As a team in 2010-2011 we scored 243 goals and allowed 208 which are very comparable to the season prior. However the PK% plummeted from 85% in 2009-10, 278/327, to 79.4% in 2010-11, 216/272, representing a 5.6% drop from one season to the next which simply does not happen normally.
Now we all know what happened this year, but for the sake of argument I’ll go over the numbers to round out my point. Niemi posted a record of 34-22-9 in 68 games with a 2.42 gaa and a .915% and 6 shut outs. But the team as a hole scored only 219 goals and allowed 205. So we allowed 3 fewer goals as a team but scored 24 goals fewer. Yes Niemi gave up some softies to be sure, but when your team scores 24 fewer goals year over year it makes it tough to post the same overall record. Also, the PK slipped even further to 76.9%, 173/225. To put the PK numbers in perspective, the last time the Sharks PK was ranked as low as they have the last 2 years was was the year after the lockout in 2005-06 when they 23rd overall and were 1 of 2 teams with less than 400 times being shorthanded with a PK% of 80.7, 322/399. Think about that for just a second.
So before Niemi got here the Sharks were 4th in scoring in the league, and last season they were 13th. Niemi is the type of goalie who needs a great defence in front of him so he only has to focus on the initial save, and maybe a 2nd depending on the shot location. But in San Jose we don’t do that. At least not with the defencive scheme we deploy. We leave the weak side open constantly among many other issues. And because Niemi is a gamer and doesn’t want to let the team down, he plays the shot straight up while trying to cheat over just a little bit to try and make that second save a little easier on him. When in reality he just isn’t good enough to do that. And because he cheats, which ultimately comes from a lack of confidence in the D to do its job, he lets in weak goals.
Now I’m not making excuses for Niemi’s moments of poor goaltending and allowing weak goals, but I am trying to say let’s give the guy a little bit of a break. We had Nabokov for 10 years who was one of the most fundamentally sound goalies to play in the NHL in the last 30 years and he could make those little cheat saves and cover a lot of crease with ease (by sacrificing his 5-hole ultimately). And at the end of the day it’s the team in front of him that’s let him down, not him letting them and us down. So can we please stop calling for Niemi’s head on a platter and trying to run him out of town? Because just like I discussed with the Nash sweepstakes, that will not resolve our problem.
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