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.


John said...

Another well written article, great job. For me it's even a little more simple. I don't like when teams chase "hot" playoff goaltenders. The other Blackhawks goalie, one Cristobal Huet, is a great example. The Caps were smart to let him go instead of signing him to the monster contract that the Hawks did. I like the Caps kids coming up in goal and agree that giving them an entire season to mature is a great idea. If things go south, there is always the trade deadline. Until then I think a wait and see attitude is just fine.

Anonymous said...

Totally agree, and let me add one more super-important point. Right now, the Caps have a shade over $5M under the Cap and only need to sign one or two more guys. Plenty of space for Niemi, BUT ....

They have other needs as well that have been discussed, and were in fact a bigger part of their playoff problems than goal. The Caps are not what you'd call deep down the middle - most especially, they need a center that can make plays for Alexander Semin and haul ass back if Semin screws up. Their need for a shutdown defenseman is also well-documented. Neither of these commodities - a top-4 shutdown D and a 2C with the wheels and smarts to keep up with Semin - is likely to come in at under $3M. Both of their kid goalies come in at .821 under the cap. Trade one of those for a 2.75 like Niemi and suddenly you don't have the space to acquire more than one of those at best, and at worst you're short for both.

So, Niemi is not only not as good a fit as some are given to think, he's a needless luxury that could hamstring their ability to fix their real needs.

Anonymous said...

Last I checked, Niemi has a Cup. Numbers are one thing, but Championships are another. I think he would be great in DC for one year.

The Peerless said...

So does Ben Eager. Think the Caps should have traded for him?

RAW said...

he definitely not the answer. i think the kids in goal will be just fine and at a great cap price. this team is ready to rock and a 2nd line center and a d-man will be available later in the season. i really want to see perrault given a chance.

paidinfull said...

Any interest in changing the title to
"Niemi as a Cap?... Hell No."

I think this pretty much sums it up.
32GP 19-4-7 with a 2.52 and a .911%
19GP 10-9 with a 2.49 and a .915%

Anttii Niemi
42GP 27-8-4 with a 2.32 and a .910%
22GP 16-6 with a 2.63 and a .910%

The general consensus is CHI has a great defense and WSH has a bad/average defense. That being said the numbers alone are enough to indicate that Varlamov is a better goalie than Niemi, so this whole Niemi > Varlamov is just dumb. The ring is a byproduct of the team, not indicative of the players individual skill which is what we are basing this comparison on.

Anonymous said...

Awesome breakdown. Very well done.

I've been dealing with this from the opposite coast, being a Sharks fan (the Caps are my East Conf team of choice, but I bleed teal). We signed Niittymaki, and say what you will about him, DW clearly thinks he's the guy we want. We also have kids who need playing time in net. Not quite the same situation as the Caps, who have a playoff tested goalie and a kid who's won back to back Calder Cups, but it's not like the Sharks are looking for goalie help either.

Sometimes I'm pretty sure sports guys just follow the traditional refrain when spouting off their theories. "Oh, the Sharks and Caps need goaltending help because they lost Nabokov and Theodore...they will go hard at Niemi" without actually looking at the teams and seeing if it's accurate.

Also, Niemi is terrible. If the Sharks or Caps ended up signing him, they'd be setting themselves up for a huge disappointment.

dougeb said...

Go with Varly and Neuvy. Between the two of them, the goalkeeper posiion should be solid.

Anonymous said...

"So does Ben Eager. Think the Caps should have traded for him?"

C'mon Peerless, you're talking about a third or fourth line winger vs. a starting goaltender (and defense/goaltending wins you championships. So you're comparison is not valid.

And, if you really want to know, I would say yes the Caps should get Ben Eager. The Capitals need experience on their side, and Eager (like Niemi) has gone the distance. The only player on the Caps to do that is Knuble, but he was watching from the stands when his team won the Cup.

I'd take Eager over a Boyd Gordon or Steckel for experience alone.

The Peerless said...

The difference being, you're going to burn $2.75 million (or somewhere in the neighborhood) on a position for which only one player can play at a time. And in signing him, you are sending a clear message to your prospect goaltenders that this is the goalie you are pinning your hopes and dreams on. And frankly, Niemi isn't that goalie, in my opinion. Varlamov and Neuvirth have earned their chance.

Anonymous said...

There seems to be a lot disbelief in Niemi's partition of winning the cup. That the guy had virtually nothing to do with Chicago winning the price.
Heres just a few thougts about it.

Tom Barasso, Grant Fuhr, Mike Vernon, Chris Osgood. All of whom has never been taken as the elite of the game (in numbers). But all of them has won the cup. Took the team to the most wanted price.

Nowdays you dont think about how lucky Fuhr was to play in the same team as The Great One. You remember Fuhr as the guy who won. You remember Vernon fighting Roy at the goalie fight of the decade. You remember Richter robing Bure at the finals.

It simply doesnt matter. Niemi is a winner. One for the ages. The only stat that does really mean anything. Is the winning stat. When a goalie has 16wins in one year's Stanley Cup playoff stat, he's the best goalie in the world that year.

Sure. There are better goalies in the NHL when looking at the abilities of other individuals. But a TEAM always wins. And the TEAM always loses. You are as good as the team ahead of you.

And one player that is the most important to a teams success, is the goaltender.

You talk about the stats of Niemi and Varlamov. Sure they give some perspective on how good the guy is or how good he is not.
But how is it that chicago played so much worse hockey WITH Huet? And that doesn't mean that H is a bad goalie. No. He's NHL career stats are same as Niemis or Varlamovs. Heck. There just a little bit better than Theodores. And Theodore is the only one of these goalies that has won the Vezina.

Varlamov may be the answer. But just for you're consideration, would you rather have a young goalie with a cup or a young goalie with no cup. Or both?