Antti Niemi of the San Jose Sharks is not tired. We got it, loud and clear. That seemed to be the go-to reaction following his stinker of a night against the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday that saw him get yanked for the first time this year in favor of Alex Stalock. Against Vancouver, Niemi was undeniably shaky. He gave up three goals in the first period and didn’t hold on to the gift lead that came off of the wackiest goal that Joe Thornton has probably ever scored.
The captain’s marker put the Sharks up 1-0 early on in a massive game against a divisional rival. Circumstances don’t get much more important this early in the season. Yet just a few moments later, the Canucks were allowed to tie the game at one-all. And they scored again just a few minutes later to take the lead.
San Jose would tie it later in the first, but as the Canucks put the clamps down in the second and third periods, the Sharks were unable to mount any kind of offense. The loss lead to obvious questions about Niemi and his energy level. He’d started 15 of San Jose’s first 16 games and had seen his numbers plummet through the last for contests.
As per Kevin Kurz at CSNBayArea.com:
He started the season with a 9-1-1 record, 1.53 goals-against average and .933 save percentage, but in his last four games, he’s 0-1-3 with a 4.09 GAA and .842 SP.
For obvious reasons, that statistical discrepancy lead to a certain line of questioning with head coach Todd McLellan. Mostly, folks wanted to know if Niemi was playing too much for the Sharks. McLellan had a lengthy response. Again, per CSNBayArea.com:
Nope. Nope. Not at all. The interesting part about Nemo is the most rest he’s had, has been in the last 10 days, and he hasn’t been as sharp. As soon as Alex [Stalock] played (on Oct. 27 in Ottawa), Nemo had a couple days off, [we] come back into LA, not as sharp. We haven’t been playing every second day, so I think the exact opposite of what you’re suggesting. Exact opposite.
OK, so let’s just yield the point then.
Let’s give Niemi the benefit of the doubt and say that he’s not tired right now. That doesn’t mean that he should be piling on the minutes like he has been though. Over the last three seasons since arriving in San Jose, Niemi been the starter 171 times out of a possible 212 regular season contests. That amounts to 81%o of the team’s games since coming over from the Chicago Blackhawks.
It’s interesting to note that in the season when he aided the ‘Hawks to a Stanley Cup title, he only played in 39 games. He was fresh for the postseason and played very well down the stretch. Since arriving in San Jose, he’s started way more often, but has seen far worse results in the playoffs.
Coincidence? Probably not.
Just because a guy can play 65 times in a year doesn’t mean that he should. Chicago won the Cup again last year, and one of the main reasons was because Corey Crawford was given a chance to take several nights off as Ray Emery dominated as a No. 2. Crawford was in mid-season form once the playoffs rolled around and it showed.
So why does McLellan insist on wearing his No. 1 guy down before even the midway point of the campaign? Especially given the precedents. Niemi is better in the postseason when he’s rested. It takes only a quick glance at the numbers and outcomes to see that. And the teams that have won the Cup in years gone by have all had strong backups that played a lot of games during the regular season.
Tuukka Rask backed up Tim Thomas. Emery backed up Crawford. The Los Angeles Kings had the tandem of Jonathan Bernier and Jonathan Quick when they iced a championship team.
In short: giving your top guy some time off is important. Really, really important. You can argue in favor of engagement and a consistent workload all night long, but in the end it’s pretty clear which system has been successful and which system hasn’t worked out quite so well.
Whether Niemi is tired right now is not the point.
The point is that he will be when the games matter most when the playoffs roll around.