One year ago, Antti Niemi redeemed himself, and his career, in Montreal. On a team without many bright spots, Niemi’s play earned him a new contract and a full year as Carey Price’s backup. This year, Niemi was not able to replicate that success and will find himself with a new organization next season.
After rebounding on his third team last season, Niemi had the worst statistical season of his career in 2018-19. His 3.78 goals against average and .887 save percentage were both the worst full-season marks of his career. Among goaltenders with at least nine starts, Niemi had the worst quality start percentage (.235%). A quality start is a game at which the goaltender reaches at least league average save percentage, or .885 on nights with fewer than 20 shots against. His -12.42 Goals Saved Above Average (according to Hockey Reference) put him in the 10 worst goaltenders in the league.
Despite all of this, Niemi went 8-6-2 in 17 starts. There were, however, positives for Niemi during the season. On January 15, Niemi stopped 52 of 53 shots he faced en route to a 5-1 win over the Florida Panthers. It would be a new career high for the Finn, and one shy of the team’s record.
In terms of performance, Niemi’s numbers obviously left a lot to be desired. But in terms of wins and losses, the Finnish goaltender outperformed what would normally be expected of him. On Tuesday, we took a look at what should be realistically expected from the position.
In a season where the Canadiens missed the playoffs by just two points, it’s easy to point to specific games as the reason Montreal is watching the post-season as opposed to playing in it, but that wouldn’t be fair.
Niemi’s season was a roller coaster. It started off with him going 4-1-0 to start the season, and allowing the team to stay afloat with Carey Price’s struggles.
Then, he went on a 1-3-1 stretch including a 6-5 loss against Tampa Bay on the team’s Holiday road trip where the team was missing Price. The next start would be a 45 save performance against the Dallas Stars, the first of three straight wins ending with the game against Florida mentioned previously. They would be Niemi’s final wins of the season.
Being a backup goaltender is not easy, being one to Price is even harder. Niemi played just three times from February 2 until the end of the season. The team seemingly lost confidence in him on the West Coast trip. On March 7, playing his final game of the season, he allowed four goals on 24 shots in San Jose. Charlie Lindgren was recalled once the team returned and played in the regular season finale after the team was eliminated.
After 17 starts (19 games) where he went 7-5-4 with the Canadiens in 2017-18, the team thought that they found Niemi, then 34 years old, the fountain of youth under goalie coach Stephane Waite. The pair won the Stanley Cup together in 2009-10, Niemi’s first full NHL season.
The team signed him to a one-year contract last May. Before entering that same month this year, he was the only upcoming free agent that Marc Bergevin said would be leaving the organization on the team’s year-end locker clean out day.
It was the most obvious display of the changing of the guard, the shift of expectations, and, simply, the state of the organization.
The team needs to start looking for marginal gains. When you miss the playoffs by two points, wholesale changes are not necessarily needed. Next season, the team will trust their goaltending depth that includes Lindgren, Michael McNiven, and will be adding Cayden Primeau behind Price.
Youth had the chance to shine at various points for the Canadiens during the 2018-19 season, and in 2019-20, it will have the chance to shine in goal. One thing is for sure, the Canadiens need better play from whoever takes the spot behind Carey Price.