SAN JOSE – A little more than a week ago, Antti Niemi’s immediate future was in doubt.
The goaltender was the most high profile name on the Sharks’ roster that was being consistently mentioned by reputable sources as potential trade bait. The Sharks remain in the midst of a transitional season, and Niemi, a 31-year-old pending unrestricted free agent, is a former Stanley Cup winner with plenty of playoff experience.
Although his long-term future in San Jose is still a question mark, Niemi now knows he’ll be in San Jose for at least the rest of the 2014-15 season after the March 2 deadline passed. If the team is able to get back into playoff position, he’s going to play a major role.
Niemi admitted that it’s “maybe” been a bit easier for him mentally now that the trade deadline has come and gone.
“It’s hard to try not to think about it,” Niemi said. “You still hear, especially from [the media], you hear the rumors. I don’t think I thought about it too much, but of course it’s gone now, so there’s nothing to think about anymore.”
Todd McLellan understands the logic that Niemi may feel more at ease now, but indicated that his goaltender probably wasn’t losing too much sleep over the approaching deadline anyway.
“It had to affect his family situation a little bit, but I think he just shows up and plays where some others, I think it could really affect them. ... Nemo, not so much.”
Niemi has never been the loquacious type when speaking in front of the cameras or in a media scrum, but with his teammates, he’s one of the more popular players in the dressing room.
According to the San Jose Mercury News last week, some of the Sharks veteran leaders went to management in support of keeping Niemi for the playoff push. According to the report: “[Doug] Wilson picked up the vibe that the players seriously believed they could make a last desperate run at a playoff spot, preferably with Niemi and [Scott] Hannan, and wanted at least some opportunity to try.”
Niemi responded to that report.
“If that’s the case, for sure it makes me feel appreciated here, and it makes me appreciate them even more.”
Logan Couture said he wasn’t among the group that went to management, but expressed his thankfulness that Niemi is still wearing teal.
“He works as hard as anyone I’ve ever played with,” Couture said. “Everyone in this dressing room supports him and has his back. You don’t like to see rumors like that spread, if they’re true or whatever. He’s a guy that everyone respects a lot. We all want to play hard for him because we know how hard he works for us.”
The Sharks lost four players in the hours leading up to the deadline, adding only young forward Ben Smith, so it’s fair to classify them as sellers. At the same time, keeping Niemi around could be seen as a slight vote of confidence in the current group, as trading him away without getting a goaltender in return would have been throwing in the towel.
Now, San Jose has won three of its first four games post-deadline. There is still a chance and making the postseason if the veteran can play as well as he did in Monday’s 2-1 shootout win over Pittsburgh, when he made 39 saves.
“I figured we weren’t going to move him because you lose a goalie like that, you’re just hurting yourself,” Couture said. “He’s been great for us.”
McLellan said: “I think Nemo’s played better this year than he played last year. I really believe that. And, he’s had more work and a more difficult season based on our play around him. He’s done a tremendous job.”
Perhaps a contract extension isn’t completely out of the question, either, as Niemi said that his agent and Wilson have “probably” spoken, without getting into much detail.
That’s something he can concern himself with at a later date, though.
“We’ve still got the games here and we want to win and play well,” Niemi said. “That’s all that matters.”