This offseason, the Penguins signed a Stanley Cup winning goaltender in Antti Niemi for $700,000 after being bought out by the Dallas Stars. Although the Penguins are high on goaltending prospect Tristan Jarry, they wanted him to have another year of developing in Wilkes-Barre before calling him up to the NHL to backup Matt Murray. Thus, Jim Rutherford needed to find a veteran backup for at least 1 year to backup Murray while waiting for Jarry to develop, and so he decided to take a risk on Niemi.
Well, so far, not so good.
In 2 games, Niemi is 0-2 with a 7.94 GAA and a .809 save percentage. He was pulled in his first start after giving up 4 goals in the first period against the Blackhawks, which turned into that ugly 10-1 loss early in the season. He played decent in his 2nd start, but still surrendered 5 goals to the Tampa Bay Lightning on the road in a 5-4 loss.
Most Penguins fans were all over Antti Niemi after his poor performance in Chicago, and even more-so after his loss against the Lightning. Well, criticize him all you want, but I am here to tell you to not be so “Antti” Niemi…at least not yet.
First of all, let me be clear: I do not believe that Niemi is some world class/God-send goaltender. He is a backup at this point in his career. That said, I think we all need to breathe and give this guy a chance. Hear me out…
Niemi has started 2 games this year, and both of those games were the 2nd of a set of back to back games. Although these games are not impossible to win, guys are more fatigued and more tired than they usually would be because of the game the night before. Of course, NHL players are in great shape, but I’m sure that none of them like playing in the 2nd of a back to back scenario, especially when having to travel the night before.
Speaking of traveling, both of these games were on the road. Rarely will a teams’ road record be as good as their home record, and playing in these road games in a back to back scenario makes it all the more difficult.
Oh, and I should probably mention that the opponents the Penguins played were both among the favorites to come out of the East and West this year in Tampa Bay and Chicago. And, let’s be honest, the game in Chicago was…well…rough to say the least. Even Murray, who has been spectacular since the Chicago blowout, surrendered 6 goals in that game.
So what, should we be calling for a Matt Murray trade, too? Of course not.
Fortunately, over the past 2 years, the Penguins were blessed with having two #1 goaltenders in Marc-Andre Fleury and Murray. If one of them went down, we knew that the other could be great. Or, in the situation of back to back games, the Penguins always had a chance since both Murray and Fleury had a chance to steal a game even if the Penguins didn’t have their “A” game.
Admit it, we’ve been spoiled.
Niemi will never be Fleury in any way. Period. And even though you may know this in your mind, I know your unconscious mind wanted to see Niemi go 13-6-1 with a 2.50 GAA and .920 save percentage this season. Well it’s time to enter reality: Niemi just is not that guy.
Niemi does have the pedigree and the potential, but keep your expectations at more of a Jeff Zatkoff level. Niemi is a backup. That’s it. Of course he is going to win a couple of games here and there, and hopefully he can end the season with a winning record, but he won’t be anything spectacular. Can he potentially steal a game here and there? Sure. He does have his name etched on the Stanley Cup after all. The guy knows how to win. That said, he’s not a number 1 goaltender any more.
So say the Penguins were to theoretically dump Antti Niemi…who is even available for the Penguins to sign to replace him? Your answer: nobody better than Niemi, especially given that Niemi is only making $700,000.
So yeah, Niemi hasn’t been spectacular thus far. But it has only been 2 games, both on the road, both against very good opponents, and probably 2 of the poorest defensive games that the Penguins have played so far this year. He is a veteran presence that, despite seeing his stats decline over the past couple of seasons, has the potential playing behind one of the best teams in the NHL.
Will Niemi be the Penguins’ backup by seasons end? Maybe, maybe not, but I would give him at least a couple more games before drawing any conclusions, so don’t be so “Antti” Niemi…yet.