It was a roller coaster season for Antti Niemi last year. He went through the worst overall stretch of his career performance-wise before being placed on waivers twice by the Pittsburgh Penguins and Florida Panthers.
With his time in the NHL seemingly at an end, he was then claimed by Montreal and had a career revitalization, and has earned a one year contract extension with the club, worth $950,000 total.
With a 7-5-4 record, .929 save percentage, 2.46 GAA and one shutout, Niemi has more than earned his spot behind Carey Price in the Canadiens line up this season. While his style wasn’t always pretty, he did well to stop plenty of pucks that came his way and was arguably the most consistent player on the roster over the second half of the season. His extension is well earned.
Niemi’s new deal does have a widespread affect on the goalie pipeline in Montreal, as it potentially locks in the two NHL roster spots and leaves three prospect goalies battling for two spots in the AHL.
The primary person it impacts is Charlie Lindgren, who signed a three-year contract extension during this season. For Lindgren, this means he will likely hold the starters role in Laval this year, and has 43 NHL games left before he’s eligible for waivers. This means that the Habs can send him down to the Laval Rocket without fear of losing their top goaltending prospect this year, and provides them with a stable presence in net as they look to have a rebound second season.
It also allows Lindgren to focus on finding his game that made him an AHL All-Star and NHL standout in his first two seasons. With a record of 8-19-2 with a 3.39 goals against and .886 sv% it’s obvious he struggled in Laval this past season. A large part of that was due to a horrid penalty killing system in from of him and a defence that struggled to find any consistency overall. This isn’t an indictment of what the Habs think of his overall play, it just gives them time to let him develop and correct some of the issues he had this season.
However, if Lindgren drastically outplays Niemi in training camp, it doesn’t rule out that Lindgren can start the year in the NHL, either. With Niemi’s low cap hit, he can be sent to the minors without his contract affecting the NHL Salary Cap. Being claimed on waivers by another team would be a risk, but it provides an additional option to the team.
For the other two goalies in Michael McNiven and Zachary Fucale, they now have to battle it out for the AHL back up role once again. Fucale is an restricted free agent this season, while McNiven has two years left on his entry level deal. Should Fucale be re-signed it’s likely the veteran will get first crack at the job.
This was the case last year as well, but Fucale (10-7-0 3.26 GAA .890 sv%) ended up losing the starters net to McNiven (6-16-1 3.50 GAA .884 sv%) under Sylvain Lefebvre due to his inconsistency. It wouldn’t be the worst idea for Montreal to give McNiven time in the ECHL as the rookie netminder struggled in the AHL last year, but has shown flashes of being a potential star in the making.
This deal also bridges the gap before the next major goalie prospect in the system turns pro as well. Hayden Hawkey has one NCAA season left at Providence and will then likely turn pro, giving the Habs another solid piece in the pipeline. By the end of this season, one would assume then that Lindgren would move up to the NHL behind Carey Price, one of McNiven or Fucale has an AHL role secured, and then Hawkey would join them in Laval. That however, is much further ahead in the future, and as anyone knows the NHL is a place where anything can happen.
This deal doesn’t really have a downside to it. Niemi earned the back up role with his strong play and his new contract costs absolutely nothing. Should he perform well, that’s fantastic. He can take some of the pressure off of Carey Price. If he falters and struggles they can bury his contract in the AHL with ease, and the same thing if Lindgren outperforms him.
It also allows the Habs to let their goaltending prospects develop and rebound after a disastrous first season in Laval, and see who will be in the future plans going forward as opposed to having to have one in the NHL.
It’s hard to find a negative in all of this, as it serves to benefit both the players and the team overall in the long and short term.