There’s not a player in the NHL who is more underrated right now than Antti Niemi.
The San Jose Sharks goalie has pretty much done it all this season. Yet, he’s not getting the love of a Tuuka Rask, Sergei Bobrovsky or a Niklas Backstrom.
Where’s the love for Niemi? Where’s his Vezina-trophy support?
If he was starting for an Eastern conference team, people would have already anointed him the award.
In this shortened-season, Niemi has come forward as one of the best goalies in the league. It’s time for Niemi to be seriously considered for the Vezina.
1) The numbers.
Sure, talking about numbers is dry, but that’s the main thing voters look for, so let’s get it out of the way first. Niemi has proven to be great this year. After last night’s action, he is tied for first in wins (22), second in games started (39), eighth in GAA (2.12), tied for fifth in save percentage (.926) and tied for fourth in shutouts (four, just one behind the leaders).
In 39 games started, Niemi has kept the opponents to two goals or less 24 times almost 62 per cent of the time). He’s had a six- and seven-game winning streaks.
2) The favourites haven’t stepped up.
Before the season, the odds-on favourites would have been Henrik Lundqvist, Jonathan Quick, and Pekka Rinne, with possibly Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak in the discussion. With the exception of Lundqvist (more on him later), Niemi has better numbers than all of them. Whether it’s the goalie’s fault, or the fact the team in front of him has regressed, those five guys have not stepped up to the plate this season when it comes to the Vezina conversation.
This opens the door for a non-favourite to win.
3) Others never played in enough games.
The top four goalies in the league in goals against average look like this: Craig Anderson, Ray Emery, Corey Crawford and Tuuka Rask. Their games started also look like this: 19, 18, 24 and 29. If Rask gets to 35 games played (and that’s a big if at this point, it would be the same as starting just under 60 games in an regular 82-game season.
Maybe that’s fine for some people. Tim Thomas won the Vezina starting less than 60 games. For me, it’s not enough. I think the Vezina should go to a guy who starts at least 80 per cent of the time (barring injury).
4) Sentimental favourites haven’t beed good enough.
This is key. Usually, when there’s no clear cut favourite, you get an older guy or someone who has the historical pedigree that becomes a sentimental vote. Think of Nicklas Lidstrom when he won a Norris in 2011 with a plus/minus of -2. But this year hasn’t seen a Martin Brodeur, a Roberto Luongo or a Miika Kiprusoff step up.
This means Niemi won’t be losing votes to a old-time favourite that is only putting up a half-decent season.
5) Niemi has beaten the top teams.
He’s played Anaheim four times, Chicago three times, Vancouver three times and L.A. three times. He’s had trouble against Chicago (but who hasn’t), but he’s defeated the other teams eight times in 10 games. So he’s stacking up his wins against top competition.
Looking at it another way, 36 per cent of his wins have come against the top four teams in the conference. He’s not a goalie padding his stats against bottom-feeders.
6) He’s carrying his team.
Yes, the Sharks started off hot thanks to Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton setting early-season records. But when the team came crashing down to earth, Niemi almost single-handedly kept the Sharks in the playoff hunt. In February alone, he lost four games when he kept his opponents to only one goal (one regulation loss, and three in the shootout). That’s three points the Sharks had no business getting. He picked up another win that month when he gave up only one goal in a 2-1 shootout win over the St. Louis Blues. He picked up another loss to Chicago when he only allowed two goals.
In total, Niemi had two wins, four losses and four overtime/shootout losses in February. Not great numbers looking at it that way. But the Sharks only scored 13 goals in those 10 games. Niemi had a 1.84 GAA and a .934 save percentage that month. The Sharks are six points up on ninth place right now. If it wasn’t for Niemi in that stretch when the rest of the team was brutal, they would be fighting for eighth.
Not only are the Sharks in the playoffs at the moment, but they’re battling for home ice advantage. The Sharks are in fifth spot, tied with the Kings in points. But the Kings, who are in fourth, have the tiebreaker.
Niemi’s top two opponents in the Vezina race are Rask and Bobrovsky, and maybe Lundqvist. Rask has a much better defence in front of him, and doesn’t start enough games, IMO.
Bobrovsky has been great, but if Columbus doesn’t make the playoffs, it hurts his chances. Same with Lundqvist. But their numbers are very similar to Niemi’s. Let’s look at the tape:
Niemi: 39 games started, 22 wins, 2.12 GAA, .926 save percentage and four shutouts.
Bobrovsky: 32 games started, 17 wins, 2.03 GAA, .931 save percentage and four shutouts.
Lundqvist: 37 games started, 19 wins, 2.09 GAA, .926 save percentage and one shutout.
Pretty similar, eh? Yet, Bobrovskyand Lundqvist are being hailed as great goalies, whereas Niemi doesn’t get that same love.
And just for fun, let’s add in Rask’s numbers:
Rask: 29 games started, 17 wins, 1.99 GAA, .929 save percentage, three shutouts.
It’s not like Rask is running away with the stats. He’s behind Niemi in wins and shutouts, only 0.03 save percentage ahead, and ahead by 0.13 GAA. As mentioned, Rask has a much better team ahead of him, so that should factor in.
Niklas Backstrom is also getting a lot of attention, but his numbers don’t compare to the other three.
Backstrom: 36 games started, 22 wins, 2.40 GAA, .912 save percentage and two shutouts.
I’m going to admit that I know more about Niemi because I have him on my keeper pool team. While it doesn’t come into consideration for the Vezina, Niemi is the top goalie in my league. Easily. He has 63 points. Second place is Braden Holtby, and he’s eight points behind.
So sure, I’m a little biased when it comes to Niemi. But the numbers don’t lie.
He deserves the Vezina.