TOP-10 UFA COUNTDOWN: #9—ANTTI NIEMI

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Photo Credit: Matt Kartozian/USA TODAY Sports

This is a series counting down the top-10 pending UFAs. It will be posted across the Nation Network over the next month! Enjoy!

Antti Niemi is the most famous free-agent goalie available this summer and that should result in a big payday. NHL teams in need of a starter can look for a trade—and there are quality options available, reportedly in Ottawa and Vancouver—but adding free agent is merely a cap hit and that will have major appeal for many teams.

Antti Niemi has been a starting goalie in the NHL for six seasons, five with the San Jose Sharks. The club originally signed Niemi after he won a $2.75 million dollar arbitration award from the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010. Doug Wilson famously said at the time of the signing ‘we liked our goaltending yesterday, we like it even more today.” Source

Most of his time on the left coast has been positive, but his reputation took a hit during the 2014 playoffs (a heartbreaking period for the organization). His performance against Los Angeles that spring (Niemi finished with a 3-3 record in the seven-games, with a 3.74 goals-against average and .884 save percentage) probably sealed his fate with the organization.

The Sharks, with no clear alternative for the starting role in 2015-16, appear ready to move on from the 31-year-old Finn (turns 32 in August). In mid-April, Niemi expressed interest in returning to the Sharks, but GM Doug Wilson was non-committal. The situation remained that way through end of April and as of June 3 David Barclay of Bay Sports Net described negotiations as ‘virtually non-existent’ between Niemi and the Sharks. It is safe to assume the veteran will have a new address in the fall.

TRACK RECORD

Antti Niemi has been an effective starter for the contending Sharks during his time in San Jose. Never close to the best goalie in the NHL, his best year may have been 2012-13 when his .924SP tied him for No. 7 overall in the category.

Niemi’s performance over the last several years has been solid-to-quality but as he ages inconsistency begins to find its way into the numbers. As you can see below, the tracking for Niemi is heading in a bad direction. (Note: Quality Start Percentage is a fascinating metric, you can read more about it via Sunil Agnihotri at the Superfan. The average QS% is .530, .600 is terrific and below .500 is thanks for coming).

niemi stats

Niemi is a good goalie but at 31 years old we can see the trending and it’s in that area where consistency is an issue. He could be good next season and the year after, but the bet is less sure than it was in 2010 when the Sharks signed him (and when the re-signed him the following summer).

Aging is a major consideration for goalie bets and it is shown in the following graph (again with thanks to Sunil).

sunil's goalie aging graph

Niemi is in the range where we can expect him to become less than average in quality. NHL teams have been overpaying for exactly this player forever, and if you look back at your favorite team’s performance with veteran goalies chances are you’ll be able to think of examples. It doesn’t seem intuitively correct—we’ve been told forever about the savvy veteran—but the truth is that (with a few notable exceptions) betting on goalies after age 30 is one very bad idea. 

Another way of looking at things is adjusted save percentage, something Darcy McLeod from Because Oilers applied to the free agent pool recently. His work is here. Quoting Darcy from the article:

  • Niemi has a good track record, but his worst two years are his
    last two years and he turns 32 in August.  San Jose got the meat of
    Niemi’s career when he was very good.  Given his track record, he will
    probably command both dollars and term.  Its an expensive bet on good,
    but declining and aging goalie.  I do not like this bet at all.

FUTURE PERFORMANCE

Since his arrival in San Jose, Niemi has been a workhorse goaltender. Here are his Games-started totals by year with the Sharks and the overall percentage of team starts per season:

  • 2010-11: 60 games (73%)
  • 2011-12: 68 games (83%)
  • 2012-13: 43 games (90%)
  • 2013-14: 64 games (78%)
  • 2014-15: 61 games (74%)

That’s a goalie getting a lot of playing time, and it helps his team because his durability means the backup goaltender can be a less expensive roster player. Niemi led the NHL in minutes played by a goalie (and wins) in 2012-13, a season that saw him finish No. 3 in Vezina Trophy voting.

It’s probably reasonable for a team to assume Niemi will get 70% of team starts in the next two seasons and he should provide his new club with average to slightly above average goaltending (specifically looking at quality starts, save percentage and durability).

The problem comes down to the contract, both in terms of dollars and term. Niemi is easily the most famous goalie on the market and as such is extremely likely to have more than one suitor. 

CONTRACT OUTLOOK

We’re trying to find a range for Antti Niemi using the previous seasons of free agency. It’s very difficult to finding goal comparables, but I wanted to use the most prominent available examples to get a feel for the range of value.

  • 2014: Ryan Miller, age 33, signed to three years, $18 million ($6 million per season)
  • 2013: Mike Smith, age 34 signed to six years, $34 million ($5.67 million per season)

Niemi made $3.8 million on his last San Jose deal, chances are the team signing him will be able to secure the veteran for well under the cost of Miller and Smith. The circumstances surrounding Niemi’s free-agent summer—the lack of a championship in San Jose—will likely impact his signing number. It should be mentioned, however, that it only takes two teams to get involved in a bidding war. If that happens, Niemi could be looking at a ridiculous contract. 

A team acquiring Niemi should expect to pay too much, for too long, and receive two effective seasons in return for their investment. It is extremely unwise, but for some teams the absence of alternatives clears the mind. 

  • aluchko

    I’m not sure the goalie ageing curve properly calibrated its data. It shows a regression every year, and considering the source you’d expect that regression and shape even if the goalies didn’t decline at all with age.

    A young goalie will get a lot of shots if they struggle, but an old goalie is probably done if he has a bad year.

    That means the goalies at 29 are being measured against their last year which includes a lot of bad seasons (ie Dubnyk).

    But a goalie at 35 is being measured against his 34 year old season, the fact that he’s still playing at 35 means that the 34 year old season was probably a good one. I don’t think Dubnyk would have gotten another shot if he fell apart at 34.

    I’m not sure how big this affect is but it clearly exists since a goalie shouldn’t be getting worse at every year of his career. What this means is that the graph overstates the risk associated with signing Niemi, his risk of decline might not be much worse than a 28 year old goalie coming off a strong season

  • aluchko

    NO. I don’t want to lock in another ageing UFA’s for long-term/big $ at the end of their career (e.g. Ference). Most important position on the team. Our defence is weak but we have maturing D like Nurse, Klef, Marincin who just need some time to be better. Bupkiss in G. Brossoit is all we have and he won’t be ready, if ever, for a several years.

    This will likely be a trade – there are a few like Lack/Talbot/Lehner (Sens don’t need 4 in G and just gave Hammond 3 yrs) or even Jones where the starters are entrenched. Several options. Personally, I would go hard after Lack (Nucks committed to Miller to 2017). 27 years and 0.921 SV% over 41 games last season.

    Scrivey was 0.890 and Lack at 0.921. We gave up 276 GA (worst in league). If Scrivey had Lacks SV% (and was our only G), he we would have given up 78 fewer goals which would have moved us up 8 positions in goal differential in league. That is how important this position is! Trade player(s) &/or picks to fill this critical position.

    • yvr_guy

      How much of Scrivey’s save percentage had to do with his ability vs the fact he played behind the Oil’s juggernaut D?

      Vancouver overpaid for Miller because they had to make the playoffs at all costs, Calgary got good value for Hiller because their objectives were different.

      Buffalo or Edmonton don’t need to pay $6M+ for a SV% 0.915 when they can pick up the same thing for free, like Ramo or by offloading a prospect that management has given up on.

      If Buffalo and Edmonton are the only two teams in the market for Niemi, and neither GM has a man-crush like Benning did last year, they could probably do a deal for around $4M which is about 2.5M+ more than you’d have to pay an UFA like Ramo, but at least you have a better idea what you are buying.

      • Kevwan

        I agree with Lowetide “Antti Niemi is the most famous free-agent goalie available this summer and that should result in a big payday. NHL teams in need of a starter can look for a trade—and there are quality options available, reportedly in Ottawa and Vancouver—but adding free agent is merely a cap hit and that will have major appeal for many teams…….we can expect him to become less than average in quality”

        3 Keys: big payday, no player loss, less than avg. I much prefer not to spend big$ on a sunset career. We have more trade options than others with a relatively large number of picks in deep draft.

        I agree that a better D may have resulted in poorer shot quality so you can’t make a perfect comparison on SV% but it is indicative of the fact that we need a starting G. Scrivey is not that guy – low SV%, soft goals, poor puck handling. It will cost us but the position is tooooooo important to not.

      • Kevwan

        I agree with Lowetide “Antti Niemi is the most famous free-agent goalie available this summer and that should result in a big payday. NHL teams in need of a starter can look for a trade—and there are quality options available, reportedly in Ottawa and Vancouver—but adding free agent is merely a cap hit and that will have major appeal for many teams…….we can expect him to become less than average in quality”

        3 Keys: big payday, no player loss, less than avg. I much prefer not to spend big$ on a sunset career. We have more trade options than others with a relatively large number of picks in deep draft.

        I agree that a better D may have resulted in poorer shot quality so you can’t make a perfect comparison on SV% but it is indicative of the fact that we need a starting G. Scrivey is not that guy – low SV%, soft goals, poor puck handling. It will cost us but the position is tooooooo important to not.

  • A-Mc

    I see Buffalo as being more willing to throw some term at Niemi than the Oilers are, so if it comes down to Oil vs Buf, i think buf wins.

    I’m not a huge fan of Niemi now that he’s getting older but if there is any way he’d decide to come here on a 2 year deal, i’d entertain the notion. With only a 2 year you’ll get a decent goaltender for a couple years and you’re not tied to him well into his retirement years.

    Niemi is a goalie you can get into the playoffs with, but he’s not a guy you want around when the team is striving for more than just “making it in”.

  • Greg

    Huh, I always thought goalies aged pretty gracefully until they closed in on 40, but that’s a pretty steep curve starting around 30.

    Also, niemi and Oduya so far… Said it before but worth saying again, yeesh, slim pickings.

  • Morgo_82

    Hey Lowetide,

    You said “we’ve been told forever about the savvy veteran—but the truth is that (with a few notable exceptions) betting on goalies after age 30 is one very bad idea”

    I think you are a little off. The more correct statement is betting on goalies is a bad idea. There are very few sure bets at any age. They take forever to develop (see Tim Thomas or Dwayne Roloson) and they can flame out even when they are young (Jim Carey the net detective, Andrew Raycroft and dozens of others)

    I’d be surprised if Niemi gets a big deal with term this time. He was a middle of the pack netminder at best on a really solid team. Maybe he gets a couple years at decent dollars but not with term. Then again it only takes one GM with stars in his eyes to overpay, just ask Khabibulin when he signed here to to much money and to long term after he was already washed up.

  • lucky

    I think the Oilers should pursue John Gibson from the Ducks. Why not add another young star who is going to be a superstar soon enough… Sure he doesn’t have the playoff experience but he does have some already at his young age. He can grow with the other young stars.. give him the starting role and let him flourish.

    • piscera.infada

      Why would the Ducks trade John Gibson? That would be completely illogical. They’ve put years into developing him, he has a very good pedigree, he just needs to take the reigns.

      • Kevwan

        Because F. Anderson is 25, taking the reigns, and up for contract renewal next year. Gibson will be up for renewal as well. They will both require raises.

        The Ducks would likely want our #16 and more for Gibson though.

      • Zarny

        Why the Ducks would trade Gibson is Frederik Andersen. 25 y/o and started 54 games this year. If the Ducks think Andersen is their guy and capable of 65 starts a year the Ducks may decide they can move Gibson to beef up their F or D. Gibson is also an RFA after next season and will be due for a raise.

        Of course, they could decide Gibson’s final ELC year is cheap insurance or they may still think Gibson will be the guy. Which would be why they wouldn’t trade him.

        We’ll see. The Ducks’ decision might be determined by what they are offered.

        • Kevwan

          I doubt the Ducks have pencilled in Anderson as there number one for the next 3 years.Gibson will be given time and opportunity to become a top goalie in this league.You would have to give a lot for Anaheimm to give him up.

        • piscera.infada

          The Duck’s biggest obstacle is their internal cap. They may find Andersen is too expensive versus Gibson after next season (when both are RFAs). Perhaps they’re both cheap, and can create an awesome, cost-effective tandem. Perhaps Boudreau goes all Boudreau and can’t decide who he likes in net. Who knows? I just don’t see the Ducks trading Gibson for some sweet-heart deal, just because.

          If they do, it certainly won’t be in conference, let alone in division. There will be a ton of suitors, and cost would be prohibitive.

          • Zarny

            No, the Ducks aren’t going to trade Gibson “just because”; no one suggested that. A “sweet-heart” deal certainly wouldn’t be “just because” now would it?

            I don’t think the cost would be “prohibitive” but you would have to evaluate the difference in cost for Gibson vs Talbot vs Lehner etc versus expected performance.

            I expect Ana wants to wait until next year. Lots of pros to keeping Gibson for another year. The thing is the 2015 draft is this year and Edm, Buf and Wpg have the 16th, 21st and 25th overall picks.

            Schneider fetched a 9th overall but had 2 more seasons of being a proven NHL G than Gibson. Bernier had a better pedigree and was traded for a 2nd rnd pick, Scrivens and Frattin.

            Gibson’s value is somewhere between. Does it change much by next year? Maybe if Andersen gets hurt, but maybe not. And if fewer teams have extra 1st rnd picks next year it could be more difficult for Ana to get a 1st rnd pick in return in a poorer draft.

    • The GREAT Walter White

      Cam Ward is not only declining, but has been an “average” NHL goalie for 4 years in his career (2008-2012), and Niemi is at the cliff stage of his otherwise extremely average career. I’ll pass on both.

  • Kevwan

    No one knows Niemi like McLellan. I wouldn’t be surprised if he says pass.

    I doubt Niemi gets a big payday. If the Wild sign Dubnyk, it’ll be the Sabres and Oilers looking at him. Lot’s of other UFA and affordable trade options so no need for a bidding war.

  • Oilers G- Nations Poet Laureate

    2 year deal at 4.8 a year. Bring in Talbot.Buy out Sscrivens. Giving Arm is a suicide pact. You cannot afford to hamstring yourself with a 5-6 year term.

  • Oilers G- Nations Poet Laureate

    Wow that Smith contract is going to be painful, and for several years. I didn’t realize he was that old or signed for that long. Yikes.

  • cmandev77

    I know this has nothing to do with hockey but if you guys can help a fellow Oiler fan out it would be much appreciated. I am looking to do a documentary on Car Salespeople (kind of behind the scenes) and would like you guys to respond with 1 word what you think of Car Salespeople. Put it at the bottom of your comment on whatever you are typing about Niemi. I for one would prefer Talbot but Niemi isn’t a bad choice.

    • The GREAT Walter White

      I prefer bikes and bicycles. But once i tried help my sister make choice between new Korean hatchbacks. Car dealers, oh my Wayne…. Two words – annoying nerds. Always trying to push unnecessary and stale goods. Motorcycle dealers a million times better

      Both Niemi and Talbot is excellent ready-for-playoff dudes

      • cmandev77

        I do apologize as I was not trying to be annoying. I figure over the years I have posted on these forums with many cheers for my comments and was hoping I had earned some respect with my Oiler Fan Peers. I am trying to do a documentary on Car Salespeople and was just looking at different demographics and people to ask. That is why I thought, why not fellow Oiler fans? Many of whom I have interacted with over the past few years on these forums.

  • Oilers G- Nations Poet Laureate

    Niemi has the chance to be either another Roloson, or another Khabibulin….only time will tell, but from where I sit, it looks like Khabby….Pass.

    • Morgo_82

      I really think we should go with more experience than this. I say a tandem of Reimer and Scrivens will work providing we upgrade the defense, if we don’t it’s not really going to matter who’s in net. With that being said, if we could somehow get Niemi on a reasonable contract, I wouldn’t be overly upset.