Editor's note: This article is part of an ongoing series in which Insider Kevin Kurz will highlight a different Sharks player every day leading up to the start of NHL training camp.
Name/Position: Antti Niemi, goaltender
Salary: $4 million ($3.8 million cap hit)
Contract status: Pending unrestricted free agent
2013-14 year in review: Last season can only be considered a step backwards for Antti Niemi, whose strong shortened 2013 campaign resulted in his first nomination for the Vezina Trophy. His numbers were decent last season – Niemi finished tied for second in the NHL with 39 wins, to go along with a 2.39 goals-against average and .913 save percentage – but he couldn’t find any game-to-game consistency and had a knack for letting in poor goals at inopportune times.
It got worse in the playoffs, when Niemi was pulled in games four and five and benched for Game 6. He finished with a 3.74 GAA and .884 SP in six games, going 3-3.
The highlight of Niemi’s season probably had nothing to do with the Sharks, as he was part of Team Finland’s bronze medal squad in Sochi, despite not playing.
2014-15 outlook: Niemi’s stint as the Sharks’ undisputed starting goaltender is over after four seasons.
That’s not to say he won’t regain the position at some point (although it’s probably a long shot), but there is no doubt that it will be an open competition between the veteran Niemi and the younger Alex Stalock when camp gets underway. At this rate, the 27-year-old Stalock has the edge to be between the pipes when the season starts on Oct. 8 in Los Angeles, but the goaltending position will be an ongoing storyline for the next few weeks. Both will play in the first month of the season, unlike last year, when Stalock was the last NHL backup to get into a game.
And, really, it’s probably time for the Sharks to start phasing out Niemi, who is entering the last year of his contract. When he was acquired, the hope was that he would be an upgrade over Evgeni Nabokov, who had some stellar regular seasons but then dipped in the postseason. Niemi’s career playoff numbers (2.74 GAA, .907 SP) just aren’t good enough though, either, and it’s time to give someone else a shot. Maybe it’s Stalock, or maybe it’s someone else, but it already feels like Niemi’s time in San Jose is winding down.
As I wrote last month, the Sharks’ best course of action may be to hope Niemi finds some semblance of his game from two seasons ago, and then look around for trading partners, provided Stalock shows he can handle a starter’s workload.