A little less than a week into the San Jose Sharks’ training camp, head coach Todd McLellan and staff are quickly establishing their preferred lines. The focus is where new personnel are present, namely the third and fourth forward lines, and the defensive pairings.
One other position is under scrutiny as well, although it’s not because of player movement on the roster. Rampant speculation in the press has the goaltender position open for competition, with incumbent No. 1 Antti Niemi battling his backup of a year ago, Alex Stalock.
The most important player for most every hockey team is the goaltender, and a difference maker between the pipes is a difference maker in the standings. Unless Wayne Gretzky or Sidney Crosby skates for your team, you’re not likely to win the Stanley Cup without a stud in next.
Like every year, the Sharks will be looking for their goaltenders to make all the routine saves, and the vast majority of difficult saves. And while the Sharks return their goaltender tandem of last season, they may be used quite differently.
The case for Niemi
Antti Niemi started off the 2013-14 campaign where he left off in 2012-13, when he was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, the award given to the NHL’s top goaltender. Then came the mid-winter Olympic break.
Traveling halfway around the world and sitting the bench for two weeks did little good for Niemi. After the break, he struggled, and his performance down the stretch was abysmal – much worse than his season totals of a .913 save percentage and 2.39 goals against average.
Niemi’s poor play down the stretch created a bit of a goaltender controversy ahead of the Sharks’ playoff series with the Kings, and when the Sharks began to squander their 3-0 games lead in the series, McLellan turned to Stalock for Game 6 (Niemi returned in net in Game 7).
Niemi is entering the final year of his contract, and will collect a relatively meager $4 million this season – just the 19th-highest paid goaltender in the league. His incentives are clear: if Niemi performs as he did in 2012-13, he will earn an enormous pay raise as an unrestricted free agent. If he doesn’t regain his form, the Sharks might have to turn to his replacement waiting in the wings.
The case for Stalock
Stalock’s rookie year was a wonderful surprise for the Sharks. Stalock made 24 regular season appearances, going 12-5-2, and posting a .932 save percentage and a 1.87 goals against average. During the Sharks’ playoff collapse, Stalock generally accounted for himself well – in his one start and two other appearances, he had a .929 save percentage.
Recognizing Stalock’s potential, Sharks general manager Doug Wilson signed him to a contract extension early in the offseason, giving him a two-year, $3.2 million deal.
Who gets the nod?
Niemi went into training camp as the clear starter. He’s a durable, proven veteran who won the Stanley Cup as a rookie with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010. But, given his struggles at the end of last season and his unrestricted free agent status at the end of this coming season, the Sharks are planning more starts for Stalock as a form of “extended tryout” to see if he has the mettle to be the club’s future No. 1.
In that respect, it’s really all in Stalock’s hands. If Stalock excels early in the season and performs equal to or better than Niemi, then depending on the Sharks’ mid-season record, Wilson might make Niemi available at the trade deadline. Recent struggles or no, Niemi would draw high return value in any trade.
If the Sharks are contending through mid-season, the goaltending decision becomes even more complicated. Niemi does have a Stanley Cup on his resume, but his play in the playoffs since that Cup-winning run his rookie year with the Chicago Blackhawks has been inconsistent. In San Jose, he hasn’t been able to “steal” a critical game or two in a playoff run – while he has two career playoff shutouts, neither of them came in his 40 playoff starts for the Sharks.
As for Stalock’s readiness for the playoff pressure cooker, there’s not enough information yet. A great regular season does not always lead to a great playoffs – remember Roman Turek, 1999-2000, anyone?
It’s a pivotal season for the Sharks, the coaching staff, and Wilson too. As the Sharks continue to “rebuild,” one goaltender will emerge as the netminder of present and future. While the season will start with Niemi in net, how it ends no one knows … yet.
Photo Credit: USA Today Sports Images
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