After difficult stints with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Florida Panthers to begin the 2017-18 season, Antti Niemi was claimed off waivers by the Montreal Canadiens to join his third team. Getting a relatively large number of the starts in a season when Carey Price struggled, he was able to perform very well in his role.
He played so well that, after looking like he was on his way out of the league when he went on waivers for a second time in the season, he earned himself another year in the NHL with an extension from Marc Bergevin.
Niemi took Al Montoya’s place in 2017-18 (bringing about his trade to the Edmonton Oilers), and also joined the growing pool of netminders in the Canadiens’ system behind Price. It meant more competition for Charlie Lindgren in his quest to earn an NHL job, but also prevented the Canadiens from having to elevate their young netminders to roles larger than they were ready for.
Niemi’s time in a Canadiens sweater in 2017-18 came with one of the best statistical performances of the entire season. A stellar .929 save percentage, high amount of goals saved above average, and even his number of quality starts (outperforming the save percentage of an average netminder) were among the very best in the NHL. It seemed that he had found new life in Montreal, and there was hope he could carry than into his second year.
November 14, 2018: Will the real Antti Niemi please stand up?
There were some strong saves throughout the year, but in the opening month when Price was struggling to find his form, there were more negative outings than positive ones. Knowing how well he played the previous year and seeing glimpses of how good he could be, it was frustrating to watch him allowing so many bad goals early on.
December 29, 2018: The Canadiens need Antti Niemi to be better
With Price out for another period during the end-of-year road trip, Niemi was temporarily handed the starter’s role, but still showed himself to be inconsistent in his play. He’d make an incredible save on a difficult shot and then allow one that should have been stopped easily.
He never did get his game back. Fortunately for the Canadiens, the new calendar year brought a Vezina-calibre Price back into the fold, and Niemi wasn’t needed to carry the weight.
On the California trip in early March, Montreal didn’t trust Niemi to earn the points against the last-place Los Angeles Kings, instead starting him versus the San Jose Sharks. Bad early goals against in what proved to be the best game Montreal played on the trip spelled the end for the Finnish netminder, who didn’t see another minute of playing time. Down the stretch, as Montreal was trying to move up the standings and into a post-season berth, Price was playing every night. including both contests in a critical back-to-back late in the season.
April 9, 2019:
#Habs Price says Niemi is the backup goalie he has respected the most of his partners, due to the way he has handled himself this season and the championship on his resume.— John Lu (@JohnLuTSNMtl) April 9, 2019
At the end-of-season interviews, Marc Bergevin stated that Niemi wouldn’t be brought back for the 2019-20 season. The goaltender left the organization with high praise from the starter, however.
April 30, 2019: Statistical expectations for a backup NHL goaltender
Being such a team player and approaching the role in a professional manner are important for a backup, but performance in the crease is necessary, too. Backups typically post save percentages around .900 and allow about three goals per game. Niemi was far off those numbers in 2018-19.
He earned a contract extension with spectacular numbers that raised some eyebrows and hinted at a second wind for his career. The chance that he could match that form again in another season was too good for Bergevin to pass up in a year when he knew his team would be fighting for every point in an attempt to earn a playoff berth.
It was quickly apparent once the season started that that wouldn’t be case for the 35-year-old. His season ended with a respectable 8-6-2 record (actually better than expected for a backup), but his save numbers were bested by nearly every other goaltender in the league.
May 8, 2019: Report: Antti Niemi to sign with Jokerit in KHL
It was revealed at the end of the season that Niemi wouldn’t be returning to the Canadiens. A month later, the news was that he was headed to Finland to resume his professional career in the KHL.
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