He won the Stanley Cup as the Chicago Blackhawks' starting goaltender last June, and Chicago offered him a deal around $2 million per season in the short term. Niemi declined it. When an arbitrator gave him a one-year contract for $2.75 million, the Blackhawks walked away from the decision and Niemi was a free agent.
He signed a one-year, $2 million deal with the San Jose Sharks, joining a goaltending platoon with Antero Niittymaki(notes) to succeed the departed Evgeni Nabokov(notes). It was a low-cost, smart hockey decision for GM Doug Wilson.
Which makes us wonder how Tuesday's hockey decision from Wilson will be received: Niemi has agreed to a four-year contract extension with $3.8 million annually, or $15.2 million overall. He was due to become an unrestricted free agent this summer.
The 27-year-old native of Finland signed a one-year, $2 million deal last September 2 with the Sharks as a free agent after helping lead the Chicago Blackhawks to their first Stanley Cup title since 1961.
After a slow start and sharing the goaltending position with fellow Finn Antero Niittymaki, Niemi has been red-hot in recent weeks. He is a key reason why the Sharks have gone on a 15-2-1 tear as San Jose has risen to third in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.
From Wilson, via the Sharks:
"We wanted Antti to remain a San Jose Shark and he wanted to be here," said Wilson. "Once he got through his expected integration period with our club, Antti's play has been outstanding and, just as important, he has consistently been a great teammate. And like many of his teammates over this past year, he worked with us on a contract that fits within our team structure and enables us to keep our group intact."
The surprise isn't the money; that's about what the raise would have been on the open market this summer for a Cup-winning keeper at his age and with his regular-season pedigree. Perhaps even more.
The years are the surprise. Not only because it bucks the trend around the NHL of treating the goaltending position as a short-term gig and a place to find cap savings, but because the Sharks have one of the deeper benches for goaltending prospects in the league. One of them, Alex Stalock(notes) of the Worchester Sharks, saw his season end on a laceration to his left leg after he was stepped on during a game, which should be a considerable rehab. Perhaps that's a consideration.
It's impossible to fairly evaluate this deal when Niemi is stopping everything in sight and back-stopping the Sharks into the Cup conversation.
The money is what you'd have to pay to retain him as a UFA. The years are either going to be seen as too long for advocates of personnel flexibility between the pipes, or a refreshing return to stability for a franchise that had the same starting goaltender for the better part of the last decade.