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.”