Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Niemi as a Cap?... No

Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Antti Niemi was awarded $2.75 million in an arbitration ruling last week. He is now former Chicago goaltender Antti Niemi. And since the Blackhawks walked away from that decision, casting Niemi into the unrestricted free agent pool, there has been no shortage of words linking Niemi with the Caps…

“Niemi is out of work for now, and with so few teams in need of a netminder, isn't likely to command all that much. Three interesting potential destinations are Philadelphia, Washington and San Jose…”
-- James Mirtle, Globe and Mail

"The San Jose Sharks are looking for a replacement for veteran Evgeni Nabokov, while the Philadelphia Flyers and Washington Capitals also need help in net. All three will likely look at Niemi, who was 16-6 in the playoffs with a 2.63 GAA and .910 save percentage.

-- Bruce Garrioch, QMI Agnecy

"For now, it appears [Michal] Neuvirth and [Semyon] Varlamov are the guys in D.C., but things do change. If Niemi comes around seeking a one-year deal, he could be a great fit with the Capitals."

-- Bruce Ciskie, AOL Fanhouse

“The Capitals are on the record as saying they are content to go with their young goaltenders this season. But that was before Niemi became available… Niemi could be the difference between another postseason disappointment and a deep run in the playoffs in 2011.”

-- Dave Lozo,

Call us nuts, but we don’t see it. And it is precisely because of Niemi’s playoff performance that we think he is: a) overrated by a lot of observers, and as a result is: b) a bad fit for the Caps.

Let’s start with a number… four. Four would be the total number of games in which Semyon Varlamov allowed more than three goals in his 19 career playoff appearances. None of those instances came in what has been characterized as a disappointing performance last spring against the Montreal Canadiens, when the Caps were eliminated in seven games in the opening round of the playoffs. On the other hand, Niemi surrendered four or more goals in one series last spring, that being the finals (in six games) against Philadelphia.

Let’s dig a little further. Niemi compiled a fine 16-6 record in the playoffs last year. Points for winning. But along with that win-loss record, he compiled a 2.63 GAA, which was good for ninth among playoff goalies (of 16 playing in at least five games), and a save percentage of .910, good for eighth among those same 16 goalies. He is squarely in the middle of the pack here. On this alone, he was not – and is not – a playoff savior.

But let’s decompose those numbers into the respective series:

Western Conference Quarterfinals (vs. Nashville); 4-2, 2.17, .921

Niemi had a fine series overall, but keep in mind that in Games 5 and 6 (both Blackhawk wins), he allowed seven goals, including four on only 21 shots in Game 5. When he was good, he was very good (shutouts in Games 2 and 4), but when he was bad, he was awful. And that is a theme to which we will return.

Western Conference Semifinals (vs. Vancouver): 4-2, 3.04, .898

During the regular season, Vancouver scored 51 more goals than did Nashville (the difference between finishing second in scoring and finishing 18th). But Niemi wasn’t so much exposed by the superior offensive team in this series as much as he displayed inconsistency, just at a higher level of scoring. His goals allowed progression over the six games went: 5, 2, 2, 4, 4, 1. Again, very good or very bad. And Chicago torched the Canucks for 22 goals in the last six games of the series. Niemi was not the difference as much as he was the fortunate recipient of a lot of offensive support.

Western Conference Finals (vs. San Jose): 4-0, 1.67, .949

Niemi shined here and did it against a top-notch team (albeit one with its own playoff issues). What is more, he did it facing a lot of shots (average of 34/game, the highest of any series in which he played). Even more impressive about his performance in this series is that he allowed only two third period goals. He kept his team in games and shut the door.

Stanley Cup Finals (vs. Philadelphia): 4-2, 3.43, .882

If you’re looking for a key to Chicago’s success in the finals, you would go a long way before settling on “Antti Niemi.” He allowed four or more goals in three of the six games and held the Flyers under three goals only once. He won two games when allowing four or more goals. Five times he let leads slip away, and he allowed 11 goals 81 shots in the last three games of the series (.864 save percentage).

Sometimes a team wins a Stanley Cup because of their goaltender. Sometimes they win it in spite of him. And sometimes, they win it when the goalie is a passenger on a loaded team that hits its stride when it counts. Count us as putting Niemi in that last category. And for a team like the Capitals, whose success will be measured precisely by how well they do in the playoffs, we like the idea of giving the kids a chance to use the regular season to hone their games in preparation for that tournament more than we like the idea of Niemi in a Caps uniform. And even if that doesn’t work out, chances are there will be better goaltenders available at the trading deadline to help the Caps achieve the success in the playoffs that eluded them last spring.

Sittin' at the end of the bar...

In the five years leading up to the lockout, the eventual Stanley Cup champion employed two and only two goaltenders through the regular season and on their way to the Cup. But in the five years since the lockout, four of the eventual champs employed more than two goalies, and two of them (Anaheim in 2007 and Pittsburgh in 2009) used four. Remember that when you think about goaltending for the Caps this season.

Some early notice on career regular season milestones Caps might reach this season…

Alex Ovechkin: 300 goals (he is at 269)
Alex Ovechkin: 600 points (529)
Alex Ovechkin: 100 power play goals (91)

Nicklas Backstrom: 300 points (258)

Mike Green: 300 points (220… ok, that’s pushing it)

Brooks Laich: 100 goals (84)
Brooks Laich: 200 points (189)

Mike Knuble: 500 points (482)

Eric Fehr: 100 points (73)

Matt Bradley: 500 penalty minutes (463)

Jason Chimera: 100 goals (88)
Jason Chimera: 200 points (189)

Boyd Gordon: 100 points (76…ok, now you’re really pushing it)

Bruce Boudreau: 300 NHL games as head coach (225)