TOP-10 UFA COUNTDOWN: #9—ANTTI NIEMI

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Photo Credit: Matt Kartozian/USA TODAY Sports

This is a series counting down the top-10 pending UFAs. It will be posted across the Nation Network over the next month! Enjoy!

Antti Niemi is the most famous free-agent goalie available this summer and that should result in a big payday. NHL teams in need of a starter can look for a trade—and there are quality options available, reportedly in Ottawa and Vancouver—but adding free agent is merely a cap hit and that will have major appeal for many teams.

Antti Niemi has been a starting goalie in the NHL for six seasons, five with the San Jose Sharks. The club originally signed Niemi after he won a $2.75 million dollar arbitration award from the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010. Doug Wilson famously said at the time of the signing ‘we liked our goaltending yesterday, we like it even more today.” Source

Most of his time on the left coast has been positive, but his reputation took a hit during the 2014 playoffs (a heartbreaking period for the organization). His performance against Los Angeles that spring (Niemi finished with a 3-3 record in the seven-games, with a 3.74 goals-against average and .884 save percentage) probably sealed his fate with the organization.

The Sharks, with no clear alternative for the starting role in 2015-16, appear ready to move on from the 31-year-old Finn (turns 32 in August). In mid-April, Niemi expressed interest in returning to the Sharks, but GM Doug Wilson was non-committal. The situation remained that way through end of April and as of June 3 David Barclay of Bay Sports Net described negotiations as ‘virtually non-existent’ between Niemi and the Sharks. It is safe to assume the veteran will have a new address in the fall.

TRACK RECORD

Antti Niemi has been an effective starter for the contending Sharks during his time in San Jose. Never close to the best goalie in the NHL, his best year may have been 2012-13 when his .924SP tied him for No. 7 overall in the category.

Niemi’s performance over the last several years has been solid-to-quality but as he ages inconsistency begins to find its way into the numbers. As you can see below, the tracking for Niemi is heading in a bad direction. (Note: Quality Start Percentage is a fascinating metric, you can read more about it via Sunil Agnihotri at the Superfan. The average QS% is .530, .600 is terrific and below .500 is thanks for coming).

niemi stats

Niemi is a good goalie but at 31 years old we can see the trending and it’s in that area where consistency is an issue. He could be good next season and the year after, but the bet is less sure than it was in 2010 when the Sharks signed him (and when the re-signed him the following summer).

Aging is a major consideration for goalie bets and it is shown in the following graph (again with thanks to Sunil).

sunil's goalie aging graph

Niemi is in the range where we can expect him to become less than average in quality. NHL teams have been overpaying for exactly this player forever, and if you look back at your favorite team’s performance with veteran goalies chances are you’ll be able to think of examples. It doesn’t seem intuitively correct—we’ve been told forever about the savvy veteran—but the truth is that (with a few notable exceptions) betting on goalies after age 30 is one very bad idea. 

Another way of looking at things is adjusted save percentage, something Darcy McLeod from Because Oilers applied to the free agent pool recently. His work is here. Quoting Darcy from the article:

  • Niemi has a good track record, but his worst two years are his
    last two years and he turns 32 in August.  San Jose got the meat of
    Niemi’s career when he was very good.  Given his track record, he will
    probably command both dollars and term.  Its an expensive bet on good,
    but declining and aging goalie.  I do not like this bet at all.

FUTURE PERFORMANCE

Since his arrival in San Jose, Niemi has been a workhorse goaltender. Here are his Games-started totals by year with the Sharks and the overall percentage of team starts per season:

  • 2010-11: 60 games (73%)
  • 2011-12: 68 games (83%)
  • 2012-13: 43 games (90%)
  • 2013-14: 64 games (78%)
  • 2014-15: 61 games (74%)

That’s a goalie getting a lot of playing time, and it helps his team because his durability means the backup goaltender can be a less expensive roster player. Niemi led the NHL in minutes played by a goalie (and wins) in 2012-13, a season that saw him finish No. 3 in Vezina Trophy voting.

It’s probably reasonable for a team to assume Niemi will get 70% of team starts in the next two seasons and he should provide his new club with average to slightly above average goaltending (specifically looking at quality starts, save percentage and durability).

The problem comes down to the contract, both in terms of dollars and term. Niemi is easily the most famous goalie on the market and as such is extremely likely to have more than one suitor. 

CONTRACT OUTLOOK

We’re trying to find a range for Antti Niemi using the previous seasons of free agency. It’s very difficult to finding goal comparables, but I wanted to use the most prominent available examples to get a feel for the range of value.

  • 2014: Ryan Miller, age 33, signed to three years, $18 million ($6 million per season)
  • 2013: Mike Smith, age 34 signed to six years, $34 million ($5.67 million per season)

Niemi made $3.8 million on his last San Jose deal, chances are the team signing him will be able to secure the veteran for well under the cost of Miller and Smith. The circumstances surrounding Niemi’s free-agent summer—the lack of a championship in San Jose—will likely impact his signing number. It should be mentioned, however, that it only takes two teams to get involved in a bidding war. If that happens, Niemi could be looking at a ridiculous contract. 

A team acquiring Niemi should expect to pay too much, for too long, and receive two effective seasons in return for their investment. It is extremely unwise, but for some teams the absence of alternatives clears the mind. 

  • gus1000

    The other thing we are forgetting is that with a proper coach and gm in place, maybe they won’t call out the goalie like in seasons past. Dallas was vocal at the beginning of last season.

    Craig crushed DD, to go along with no defense and a change in pad regulations two weeks before the season, his game suffered.(Rinne is on record that it made his game a mess as well) Tougher for the taller guys to adjust, but as their current records show, they did manage to adjust. DD was a vezina candidate with teams who believed in him.

    Maybe with a little confidence back in his game, Scrivens, with a capable partner pushing him, may bounce his game back for us.

  • gus1000

    Let’s hope that Sharks need a goalie next season.

    I could see a team like San Jose, a veteran team wanting to get a short term rental like Miller. Canucks would be wise to take any draft pick in order to clear the cap space.

    Exploring a Miller trade and Bieska trade could free enough space to take a run at Franson, which should improve goaltending by having 4 top DMen in Edler/Tanev, Franson/Hammer.

    A guy can dream!

  • Tikkanese

    Thanks Alan—it should surprise no one that the connection between Coach Todd and Player is the key to the Oilers approach about Niemi. Certainly Todd and Peter C. have talked and all of this will unfold. It would be impossible for the Coach to be neutral on this player after so many years together. An vice versa– Niemi can hardly be neutral on Coach Todd.

    This alone will decide this matter unlike issues of $ or term. Personally he will at least be steady.

  • Oilers G- Nations Poet Laureate

    Remember a few years ago when the Oilers jersey made its way to the ice and The Professor threw it back to into the crowd? I do, it showed his heart his passion and and where his alliance was. I wish the fans had the same passion displayed by a guy who is deemed a bad goalie. Let’s fix the defence and let him flourish for at least the last year of his contract.