Ask A Pro Antero Niittymaki: West a Whole New League
The admission he needed to study up on the shooters in the Western Conference was among the more interesting revelations when InGoal Magazine sat down with the soft-spoken 30-year-old Finnish goalie for a couple of minutes over the weekend to pose questions from readers for the weekly Ask a Pro segment.
Off to a 9-3-3 start in San Jose with a .908 save percentage and 2.43 goals-against average through mid-December, Niittymaki also surprised us a bit when he said he didn’t get a lot of position specific coaching until he made the Elite League level in Turku, Finland. That flies in the face of previous stories about goalie coaches for all players as young as eight, though it’s always been noted that things vary from region to region, which is one reason so many Finnish goalies play so differently from each other.
There’s no better example of that than the juxtaposition of Niittymaki’s quick, on-the-skates style with fellow Finn and San Jose playing partner Antti Niemi, who spends a whole lot more time on his knees both before and after shots. But contrary to what some might think after the Sharks brought Niemi in late after being cut loose by the Stanley Cup-winning Chicago Blackhawks, Niittymaki is borderline ecstatic to be sharing his crease with another Finnish goalie.
As for the rest of his thoughts, we’ll turn it over to your questions:
InGoal reader Erik R from San Francisco asks: What has been the biggest adjustment coming all the way from Tampa Bay to San Jose?
Antero Niittymaki: “Playing in the Western Conference, for sure. In the east we played Pittsburgh, Philly, the Rangers and Devils like six or eight times a year so you get to know those guys pretty well so you don’t really have to worry about those things. The west has been a little weird, but I think it’s a good thing. You are a little more sharp because you don’t know the guys, so you have to be more focused and do a little research before the game about the shooters. But I think it’s been kind of a refreshing thing. It’s kind of almost like a new league playing against these news teams. We have a pretty good scouting report on everybody before the game. The coaches do a great job with that, so you just kind of read those and you watch highlights and you can see from that who is good, who is not, who likes to shoot, who likes to pass. But you go through it every time and I think playing out west now I have to do a little more than playing six times against the same team every year.
Niittymaki a more natural fit in San Jose
After a decade with Russian standout Evgeni Nabokov tending the twine behind them, the San Jose Sharks had to get used to not one, but two new Finnish goalies this season in Antti Niemi and Antero Niittymaki.
Complicating matters is the fact neither plays like the old-school Nabokov, who took his upright, on the skates style to his native Russia for a four-year, $24-million offer from the Kontinental Hockey League after San Jose made it clear they were going to go in a different direction. Of course incoming Finns Niemi and Niittymaki don’t exactly play a similar style of game either.
At least Niittymaki is not totally dissimilar from Nabokov in the way he plays, skating more and playing aggressively on top of his crease. Which is why, as InGoal detailed in this pre-season article, few should be surprised that Niittymaki is having an easier time with the early transition, while the Sharks have struggled at times when Niemi is between the pipes the first two months.
“I think the east is kind of more wide open. I think the west is a lot of stuff in front of the net, kind of a lot of kind of crappy goals, you know: a lot of traffic, a lot of wrestling around the net, a lot of tips. Way more than the east. The east is, I wouldn’t say nicer goals, but a lot more odd-man rushes and stuff like that. There’s more blocking as a goalie here in the west, but we work on it a lot in practice with a lot of tips and screens and stuff. Obviously there’s traffic in the east too, but there’s more here and I just have to get used to it. It’s the same game.”
InGoal reader JP Franks from Cleveland asks: We’ve read a lot about the coaching in Finland, so what was your history with coaches growing up.
Antero Niittymaki: “My first goalie coach was pretty much when I was 18 and started playing with the elite league team back home. We had now and then a guy that came down to practice, but it wasn’t like an every day thing or anything. So I taught myself to play goalie. And I think it’s a good thing because you have to learn on your own, you have to figure out the game doing that. You have to figure out how to make saves and you get to know your game better. I think when you do that it’s easier to get through tough times because you know your game better and you know what’s wrong and what should I do differently. You don’t need someone to tell you. I mean it’s good to have somebody who might see something different, but I think it’s a good thing that I didn’t have every day somebody telling me how to make a save. I had to figure it out myself.
“I haven’t really ever practiced technical stuff. It’s more the positioning is the big thing always and I had my style for a long time and nobody every tried to change it, they kind of let me be who I am and do my own thing. And I think that’ a good thing because I’m not a guy who wants to do something just because somebody tells me to do that thing. I kind of have to know why to do it.”
InGoal reader Johnny from Fremont, CA asks: I saw pictures on the Sharks website of you and goalie coach Wayne Thomas looking at a computer on the flight overseas for the season opener and was curious: what are you working on there? And how much video work do you do with the Sharks goalie coaches?
Antero Niittymaki: “We watch different things, but it’s up to us if we want to see something. If there’s really a problem, he will show that to you, but it’s more things like playing the puck because when you play it you don’t really see who is open, so it’s good to take a look sometimes and you see that you actually have more time than you think you have, so that’s pretty much it. If there is something you want to look at in games, saves or goals, they are always there. But I don’t like watching myself too much.”