The San Jose Sharks will open training camp in September with a truly open goalie competition for the first time in years. It was the single topic addressed from the mailbag of CSN Bay Area Insider Kevin Kurz published on Wednesday, July 23.
The most important consideration is whether a goalie can handle the starting role on a team that is currently listed by odds-making outfits like Bovada as one of the top eight contenders for the 2015 Stanley Cup. Only one goalie has shown the ability to do that.
They like to say if you cannot beat them, join them. Niemi did beat the Sharks in the 2010 Western Conference finals in four games en route to a Stanley Cup championship, but still joined them for the 2010-11 NHL season.
In four seasons since coming to San Jose, he has played in at least 60 games three times and never had a goals-against average (GAA) above 2.42 while reaching at least 34 wins and a .913 save percentage. The other season, he was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy while playing 54 of the 59 games with 31 wins including the Stanley Cup playoffs, when he had a .930 save percentage and 1.87 GAA.
Even in the AHL, Stalock has played 60 games just once. That was before his career-threatening leg injury in 2011. Even including relief appearances, he has not played in 70 games in over the three years since at any level between the regular season and playoffs combined.
However, Stalock offers advantages in most other areas of the game. This does not even consider being nearly four years younger, nor how much less he is paid or even will be paid on his next contract barring a stunning leap from him or meltdown from Niemi.
For one thing, one could argue Stalock is more consistent despite the lack of playing time. He has given up more than three goals in only two of his 30 games, though it is important to note that he was the goalie of record in just 22 of those. Even in his Vezina finalist campaign, Niemi had seven such games in 54 starts—a rate half-again higher.
Niemi was fantastic for two playoff series for the Chicago Blackhawks, but it was enough to win the 2010 Stanley Cup after what was technically his rookie season. (He played three games during the 2008-09 NHL season.) He was outstanding in early 2011 while starting 36 of 37 games to carry the Sharks from missing the playoffs to the second seed and a Pacific Division title.
However, he has trouble sustaining such success. His Vezina campaign carried over to the start of the 2013-14 NHL season, but that still means he has topped out at playing well in a 65-game stretch. He had an astounding 47-game stretch over 105 days, but a truly elite starting goalie needs to put together over 80 games in net over eight months to win a Stanley Cup.
Both goalies know how to play the position game well. Stalock moves better and is thus more aggressive, but how effective that is for him moving forward depends on how well teams adjust to that as they see more of him. He can recover better from being out of position, but he will be out of position more often.
Niemi is also a little bigger, offering him a better chance to stop pucks from deeper in the crease, making aggression less essential and leaving the crease better protected from side-to-side movement and rebounds. Both goalies are above average at rebound control and know they can freeze the puck and rely on the good faceoff skill of San Jose's centers.
The bigger issue is how they recover from the blocked shots in front of them—a way the Sharks support their goalie as well as most NHL teams but also leave him vulnerable to being out of position. Just as it could be argued they are better off with more aggressive skating of Stalock or safer positioning of Niemi, either could be an advantage reacting to deflected shots.
What turns this debate is that Stalock is among the best at moving the puck while Niemi is mediocre at best. This advantage is more important for San Jose in the 2014-15 NHL season than for most teams.
Not only do the Sharks want to push the puck, but there will be quite a bit less blue-line experience than there was last season: Brad Stuart and Dan Boyle had 1408 more combined games in the regular season and Stanley Cup playoffs under their belt than Matt Irwin and Brent Burns sliding into their depth-chart positions, even counting the latter's time at forward.
Having a goalie able to play the puck better can take some of the pressure off a young defense. Putting him in net would also represent a significant enough change from recent failing San Jose teams to offer some hope for a different result in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
To do that, Stalock will have the difficult task of winning the job in training camp against a quality competitor and friend, then holding it during the 2014-15 NHL season. Only when he does both should the Sharks consider trading a proven starter like Niemi.