It’s Time For A Change In Net

The National Hockey League is a win now league, and the Pacific Division is no exception. Right now, the San Jose Sharks, Los Angeles Kings, and Anaheim Ducks seem to be running away with the top 3 spots in the division, as was expected by me in the beginning of the year. But home ice advantage is important, and the Sharks haven’t gained any ground on the Anaheim Ducks, who are just 4-6 in their last 10 or pulled as far as they could have ahead of the LA Kings, who are 1-8-1 in their last 10, that one win coming against the Sharks. The main reason the Sharks haven’t been able to to catch the Ducks is up and down play, and that all starts with Antti Niemi.

Now, before I dive into this too deep, I would like to stress that I am a huge fan of Antti Niemi and I’ve supported him when the years were rough to everyone who doubted him. But only because I knew he was the best option in net. Now, I’m not so sure. Even after coming off a Vezina Candidate season, Antti Niemi has been very up and down the past few months. Some nights, like against Chicago last Saturday, he stole the game and played a fantastic performance. But against the Philadelphia Flyers on Monday, he made some terrible mistakes in the net that lead to 3 goals in 2:45 at the beginning of the 3rd period so the Flyers could coast on to a 5-2 lead. And in a division as cut throat as the Pacific, where the Ducks or Kings or even the Canucks could catch fire at any time (the Ducks already have and could do it again) the Sharks need to win now, and win often. I won’t blame all of it on Niemi. Players like Thornton, Marleau, and Burns have all struggled recently too and can’t seem to score. You need your top players to score. Last night the Sharks got great depth scoring from Havlat and Wingels to win 2-1 in overtime. But there is one reason that game was in overtime in the first place. His name is Alex Stalock.

Feb 3, 2014; San Jose, CA, USA; San Jose Sharks goalie Alex Stalock (32) replaces goalie Antti Niemi (not pictured) during the third period against the Philadelphia Flyers at SAP Center at San Jose. The Philadelphia Flyers defeated the San Jose Sharks 5-2. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

From the stat sheet, Antti Niemi’s stats aren’t terrible. He’s 28-12-6 with a .912 save % and allows 2.40 goals a game. Those stats are nowhere near his Vezina Candidate year last year, but with a team with a high octane offense like the Sharks, that’s good enough to rack up some wins. But what happens when the offense goes through a slump? Niemi’s stats aren’t enough to keep them up. Head coach Todd McLellan has been giving Alex Stalock more and more starts that aren’t just the second game of back to back games. Remember, earlier this year Alex Stalock broke the San Jose Sharks record for most consecutive shutout minutes. So maybe it is time for Stalock to get more starts with the Sharks over the next month or so. Maybe even taking the starting job away from Antti Niemi for a bit.

It can’t be said enough. The NHL is a win now league. Right now, the Sharks offense is struggling, and Alex Stalock playing at such a high level, the Sharks have a better chance of winning with Stalock, who is 8-4-0 with a .938 save % and 1.67 goals a game, than they do with Niemi. Will Stalock be the answer the rest of the year? Who knows? But until the Sharks offense can get it going, I’d feel much more comfortable with their chances if they had Al “Lockdown” Stalock in the net. (Don’t question it. “Lockdown” is gonna be a thing. Trust me.)

Topics: Alex Stalock, Anaheim Ducks, Antti Niemi, Brent Burns, Chicago Blackhawks, Martin Havlat, Philadelphia Flyers, San Jose Sharks, Todd Mclellan

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  • Sharkfan

    Stalock is not ready to take over in net – Niemi is a proven commodity

  • FresnoDick

    I have to pretty much agree with this. The Sharks have historically overused their starting goalies, which some think has contributed to early playoff exits. More starts for Stalock have to be good for the team and for Niemi. And am I the only one who crosses his fingers and holds his breath every time Niemi plays the puck? Watching the confident way Alex makes the right move with the puck every time alone justifies giving him more starts.

    • Jay Klein

      One characteristic doesn’t justify a guy getting more starts. Goalies don’t have as many opportunities play the puck nowadays especially with the trapezoid. You don’t see a lot of goalies that are Marty Turco good at handling the puck because most of the time the goalie handles the puck behind the net and just sends it up the boards or holds it for their D. There isn’t as much of a need for a goalie to be outlet passing.

      • Zymurge

        OK, you can rule out that one characteristic. Here are two more: a considerably better save percentage and signficantly lower number of soft goals given up by Stalock.

        I’ve been a Niemi fan as much as any. When I saw Stalock in preseason I said that this guy has the right combination of fundamentals and reflexes to surpass Niemi this season if given enough starts. That seems to be taking place now. The more starts Stalock is getting without 5+ games between of sitting inbetween, the better he is getting. His confidence is growing and that’s starting to spread outwards to the team.

        Right now he’s the better goalie on the team and gives them the best chance to win. Giving him 50% of the starts through to the playoffs will light a fire under Niemi’s butt and we’ll see who is the best prepared for the playoffs when they start.

        And before anyone talks about needing an experienced goalie for the playoff, think back to Niemi’s cup winnign performance with Chicago. He was a rookie that outplayed the veteran down the stretch and took his starting job all the way through to hoisting the Cup. Maybe what comes around goes around and Stalock will do the same :-)

  • Jay Klein

    1) You’re foolish if you believe the NHL is a win now league. The fact that most star players stay in the same organization (i.e. Ovie, St. Louis, Getzlaf, Marleau, Perry just to name a few) speaks to how teams get better by drafting and developing more than they do from trades, meaning that because of the nature of drafting and the time it takes to develop players it’s not essential for a losing team to be a winning team the next year. This isn’t the NFL where you can be the Chiefs and trade for a few guys and suddenly climb to the top of the league.

    2) Stalock is successful because teams haven’t figured him out yet. He’s harder to scout because he hasn’t played as many games and on top of that he plays an unorthodox style that will take time to figure out. This is the case with most rookie goalies where they have a great first season and then teams figure them out (i.e. Steve Mason). It isn’t until their 3rd or 4th season when you start to see how good that goalie will really be over the long term.

    3) If anything the sharks need to change their goal tending philosophy. Niemi is featured in way to many games. Of course the Olympic schedule may have something to do with how he’s playing but the sharks need to stop relying on one goalie so much. With Stalock they have a decent tandem that should do them some good heading into the end of the hockey calender. Stalock will be the starter within the next 3 years, but this year if McLellan uses both goalies properly Niemi will be fine during the playoffs.

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