Sharks adjusting to Niemi, Niittymaki and different styles
The San Jose Sharks already have one European exhibition game in the books, beating the Fred Brathwaite-backstopped Mannheim Eagles in Germany 3-2 on Saturday after a 10-hour flight through nine time zones. From there it’s off to Stockholm to start the NHL season in Sweden.
But the biggest adjustment for San Jose this season may be adjusting to a couple of new Finnish goalies. After a decade with Evgeni Nabokov behind them, the Sharks have to get used to not one, but two new 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.
Which means the Sharks have some work to do before the season starts.
“With Antti and Niittymaki we’ve got two new goaltenders that we need to learn a lot about,” head coach Todd McLellan said of a less than smooth 2-4-0 preseason that has seen more comfortable incumbent Thomas Greiss outplay both newcomers despite being destined for No.3 status. “It’s going to be an ongoing process, and it’s not going to end in training camp. It’s going to continue on well into November and December before everybody is comfortable.
“Their character on the ice and tendencies. Do they like to come out and play the puck under pressure? Do they like to let rims go by? We’re figuring all that out as we go along here. As we learn more about each other, defensemen and goaltender especially, we’ll become better at it,” McLellan continued. “You try to incorporate the goaltenders into your team and, as coaches, we’re not putting defensemen that are regularly playing together and it’s tough.”
For the most part Niemi pooh-poohed those adjustments, saying in his typically few-words-as-possible fashion that the only change was handling the puck.
“I gotta be able to read it better what is going on and what to do with puck, nothing too big,” Niemi told InGoalMag recently. “I got to be more active, obviously, but that’s another part of the game and my main focus is stopping pucks. I just want to focus on how I do basic things and stop the pucks.”
To hear Niemi tell it, the biggest adjustment he’s got to make after the Stanley Cup-winning Chicago Blackhawks decided against paying his $2.75-million salary arbitration award and cut him loose, is a crisp new set of Sherwood pads. (Click here to see more on Niemi’s new mask).
Just a few days old at the time, they were a decided departure from the equally flat but far more worn looking TPS pillows he had strapped to his legs when he hoisted the Cup a few months earlier. But the easy-going Niemi said it would only take a couple of days to break in the new teal-trimmed white pads.
As for breaking in new teammates or any changes in how San Jose plays in front of him, or boxes out opponents, Niemi said: “No, nothing, not really.”
The games, however, have told a different story. Against the Canucks last week, a pair of short Niemi rebounds led to scrambles in front and eventually goals.
Where Niittymaki is not totally dissimilar from Nabokov and Greiss in the way he plays – skating more and playing aggressively on top of his crease – Niemi will likely spend more time on his knees this season than Nabokov did over the last 10 combined. His effective use of both his wide torso and those long, flat pads was a big part of Chicago’s Stanley Cup victory, but so too was the way the Hawks played in front of their net, clearing both bodies and the short-range rebounds that Niemi’s more passive, blocking style tended to produce.
“We’ll have to clean things up around our net area a little bit more and he’ll have to clean up rebounds,” said McLellan, adding he was “still deciding” on his goaltending structure this season. “We feel really comfortable with Nittymaki. We feel really good with Greiss. Greiss has played really well in the exhibition season and we have to determine that as we keep going forward.”
With Niemi’s different style, finding that same comfort level may just take more time.