Antti Niemi, Jimmy Howard contracts not just about money
Niemi adjusting his play in San Jose, while Howard’s aggressive style suits Detroit’s system perfectly
It’s funny how quickly things can change when it comes to NHL goaltending.
Antti Niemi came out of Zamboni-driving obscurity in Finland to backstop Chicago to a Stanley Cup last season, turned down a one-year offer worth $2-million shortly after the celebration, was awarded $2.75-million from in salary arbitration, and promptly found himself out of work as the salary-cap strapped Blackhawks walked away from a number they deemed to pricey.
Now, after San Jose signed him to the same one-year, $2-million contract he turned down in Chicago, the late-blooming 27-year-old has signed a surprising contract extension with the Sharks that will pay him $15.2 million over the next four seasons.
Niemi’s contract value isn’t the only thing rapidly evolving.
While much of Niemi’s predictably slow start can be attributed to a Sharks team adjusting to his somewhat unique style of play – and the rebounds it creates – after a decade with stand-up Russian Evgeni Nabokov behind them, the soft-spoken Finnish goaltender has been making some adjustments of his own. Mostly Niemi is spending more time on his skates than he did winning a Cup in Chicago.
“Here I think we have done a little bit more time back on just like basic skating skills. If I can skate better it gives me more time to get set and then I can be patient, and I don’t have to cheat,” said Niemi, who is 17-2-1 and was named the NHL’s second star while playing 20 straight since Antero Niittymaki hurt his groin and gave up his spot in the Shark’s all-Finnish goaltending rotation.
“Also we didn’t do too much shuffles last year, so we focused on that here too. Just the basics and I think those are getting better too. Some things I have not been doing too much for like five years.”
It’s not surprising to hear Niemi is on his skates more in San Jose, where the goalies are coached in combination by assistant General Manager Wayne Thomas and, increasingly this season, Corey Schwab. Thomas is a long-time disciple and co-worker of former Team USA and San Jose goaltending guru Warren Strelow, who passed away in 2007. And Schwab spent years in the New Jersey Devils system that converted Martin Brodeur back from a butterfly goalie in junior to one of the NHL’s last remaining stand-up stoppers.
Niemi, meanwhile, spent his first full season in the NHL learning on the fly under the highly respected guidance of Chicago goalie coach Stephane Waite, who has talked to InGoal Magazine in the past about not forcing too much change on his puck stoppers. Given the massive adjustments Niemi was already trying to make – to a new team and system, a smaller rink, better shooters, and a totally different style of play in the NHL – in just his second season in North America (he spent most of the first in the American Hockey League), the focus last season was more about tightening things up and closing holes in his down game.
“Last year with Steph we went straight to the butterfly and recoveries and pretty much everything was focused on being on the knees,” Niemi said. “I think we try to make me a little more blocker last year, like more compact, but still not losing the reaction saves.”
Clearly it worked. Niemi and Waite have Stanley Cup rings to prove it. But it also came behind a team that shut down the area around its goaltender’s crease as well as any in since the game opened up coming out of the lockout, allowing Niemi to rely more on a broad 6-foot-2 frame and an awkward looking but deceptively quick glove hand motion to take away space upstairs, while his incredibly fast, flexible legs and almost unnaturally wide butterfly stance made it almost impossible to beat those signature straight TPS pads along the ice.
The Sharks, though, are a different animal, and Niemi, who says the adjustments he has made at both NHL stops were “more like propositions, options, not forced,” feels the need to spend more time upright behind them. Like much of what Niemi does between the pipes, even simple t-pushes don’t look the same as others around league, staying hunched over and compact above the waist.
Much like his Cup victory last season, however, Niemi’s recent run proves it doesn’t always have to be pretty to be effective.
“The better you can skate, the sooner you can get set and it gives you more time,” Niemi said. “I think last year, sometimes going down too early I think sometimes I had to cheat because I was not set early enough. So now I can better move there and get set earlier.”
Speaking of getting set early, no goalie does so more aggressively than Red Wings No. 1 Jimmy Howard, who regularly makes saves three, even four feet outside the top of the blue ice. His ability to do so in Detroit, where he trusts the defense to take away the back door options that his aggressive play leaves open, made it easy to sign a bargain two-year, $4.5 million contract extension.
Howard said his positioning is possible for two reasons: The first is a set of quick feet and surprisingly strong lateral movements for a goalie who locks in so low and wide in his stance (though that stance does create less explosive pushes than a more upright, narrower start, and can leave him reaching and fully extended when he arrives in a new save position, rather than getting there first, then setting, something Niemi is trying to do more). The second is a defensive team system that stresses taking away the backdoor options that teams target trying to both catch Howard too far out, and to push him back in his crease and back outside his comfort zone.
“I’ve got a great defensive crew with me and I know they are going to take care of that backdoor,” Howard told InGoal recently, crediting a return to his well-outside-the-blue-ice approach for turning around a mid-season slump. “Coach [Mike] Babcock stresses that, so you know the goalie has the shooter and you pick up everything backdoor, and that allows not only myself but also Chris [Osgood] to be more aggressive. So instead of the puck playing me I just decided enough is enough and just get out there and be aggressive and get to the puck before it changes directions.”
Getting the extension out of the way also removed one more concern for Howard heading down the stretch and into the playoffs, giving valuable security to a goaltender who spent four years with Detroit’s American Hockey League affiliate in Grand Rapids before finally winning the No.1 job last season and finishing as a Calder Cup finalist for rookie of the year.
“I’m really happy with the decision and happy I get to stay in this organization,” Howard, who consulted with Osgood before signing, told the Detroit Free Press. “You do think about it – it’s your livelihood, and not knowing what’s going on in your future, it can be bothersome. I never really wanted to leave. Every single year we get a chance to win, and that’s all I’m really worried about.”
Don’t underestimate the importance mentally of that security heading into his second playoffs, said Osgood, who knows about the grass not always being greener after stints with the New York Islanders and in St. Louis between Stanley Cup wins in Detroit.
“Now he can just go out and play,” Osgood, 38, told the Free Press. “There’s enough pressure coming down the stretch, and for that to be an issue would make it even more. To say it’s not would be lying, because it’s something that’s obviously in the back of your head a lot. I told him it’d be in his best interest to do it prior to the playoffs.”
Howard could have waited for unrestricted free agency, and perhaps made more money on the open market, though the volatility of goaltending shares the last two seasons mean that was never a sure thing. That same uncertainly meant San Jose might have been able to retain Niemi, or find a similarly skilled stopper, for closer to what Howard for make the next two seasons.
In both cases, however, there was a good fit, both on and off the ice between a goalie and a team.
And sometimes that sense trumps dollars.