As a goalie, compared to the exiting Evgeni Nabokov, what does Antero Niittymaki bring to the Sharks? That’s easy to answer: more vowels, and smaller paychecks. But that’s just the bottom line. And to look at Thursday as just a goalie exchange for the Sharks would be missing the point.
For the opening of hockey free-agent season, the Sharks had a two-prong attack strategy. And it succeeded, more or less. The first prong unfurled a week ago. The Sharks needed to keep Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski from reaching the free-agent market. This was accomplished when the two signed for millions less than they surely would have been offered on the open market — or even in a semi-open market in Pavelski’s case, because he was a restricted free agent.
To understand how important all of that was, just watch what happens when Ilya Kovalchuk completes his free-agent ride. Kovalchuk, who scored two fewer goals than Marleau last season, is angling for a $9 million-per-season contract and will get it from some team. That’s about $2 million more per season than Marleau’s new deal. Sharks general manager Doug Wilson can tell you the real benefits of Marleau and Pavelski’s acceptance of lesser dollars, in addition to the obvious benefit of keeping both men in teal uniforms. The signings allowed Wilson to plan out the rest of the summer, plus gave him more dollars to work with in terms of filling the two other lines of his offseason dance card. “It gives us flexibility,” Wilson said. “Flexibility is a good thing.”
Thus came the second Sharks prong of the free-agent season, which was unveiled at 9:01 a.m. Thursday. Wilson telephoned the agent of Niittymaki, the goalie from Finland who spent last season with the Tampa Bay Lightning. After some opening dialogue, the agent spoke with Niittymaki, who by 10 a.m. was also on the phone with Wilson. An hour after that, the deal was done. “It was the first phone call I got,” Niittymaki said, “and that was pretty much it.”
Wilson’s biggest concern was not that Niittymaki would sign with another NHL team. The worry was that he might re-up with Tampa Bay under the team’s charismatic new general manager, Steve Yzerman. In fact, if you were wondering why Wilson announced early last week that Nabokov would not be offered a new deal by the Sharks, there’s your answer. Yes, the move was a considerate one in terms of allowing Nabokov to plan his own future. But it also sent out a message to any potential free-agent goalies that there was an opening in San Jose and so they might want to hang in there until July 1.
Niittymaki clearly heard the message. Tampa Bay reportedly offered him as much or more money as the Sharks to re-sign. But he was eager to sign on with one of the NHL’s best teams and play behind better talent than he did in Tampa, where he had a decent numbers last season. Wilson and his staff did not make Niittymaki their target until they first discussed the qualities they wanted in their next goalie, in terms of style and age and ability to fit in with the Sharks’ salary requirements. After defining those qualities, the Sharks looked for goalies that fit the checklist. Given the way things played out, you can surmise that the other two free agents the Sharks liked, Dan Ellis of Nashville and Chris Mason of St. Louis, were ranked behind Niittymaki. He signed for $2 million per season for two years. Subsequently, Ellis wound up getting $3 million per season for two years from Tampa Bay, Niittymaki’s old team.
Niittymaki, on paper, is not as good as Nabokov. However, another non-superstar Finnish goalie — rookie Antti Niemi of the Chicago Blackhawks — won a Stanley Cup this spring because he was playing behind a great team. It’s further proof that Joe Thornton and Marleau and Pavelski will have much more to do with the team’s playoff success than any Sharks goalie.
If there is a red flag with Niittymaki — and isn’t there always? — it would be his shortage of NHL playoff experience. He has been in the net for exactly 72 minutes of postseason games, less than four periods of hockey. Wilson points to other high-pressure tournaments in which Niittymaki has thrived. He was the MVP on a championship team in the American Hockey League. And he won the same honor at the 2006 Olympics when he helped take Finland to the gold medal game after presumptive No. 1 goalie Miikka Kiprusoff suffered an injury.
Wilson still has work ahead of him. He has to find another veteran defenseman to replace the retired Rob Blake. So don’t be surprised if some of the Sharks’ young talent goes out the door as part of a multiplayer deal in pursuit of that defender. If the Sharks’ general manager must give up Kent Huskins or Niclas Wallin to get that man, you have to believe Wilson would do that. The other Sharks gap to fill? It opened up Thursday when third-line center Manny Malhotra signed with Vancouver at the surprising price of $7.5 million over three years, a figure the Sharks couldn’t match under their budget and salary cap restraints. Losing the versatile and professional Malhotra will hurt, on the ice and in the dressing room. But it’s possible Wilson will find a replacement out there somewhere.
Say this much: The Sharks have done a better job of holding together their roster than the Blackhawks, who have already been forced to dump several of their major playoff heroes. Wilson’s maneuvers all but guarantee another Sharks playoff appearance. He has kept the team’s top two offensive lines intact, with five of their top six defensemen also returning. The third and fourth lines will be full of youth, which isn’t the worst concept. Logan Couture was a surprising factor throughout the playoffs and will absorb Malhotra’s role as a third-line center. Frazer McLaren will take on Jody Shelley’s role as a fourth-line enforcer.
In other words, so far, so not very disastrous. The Finnish phrase for “good enough” is riittävän hyvä. That pretty much sums up Thursday for the Sharks. But there is lots of summer ahead for more Wilson maneuvers. Let’s see what happens next.