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Cup champ Niemi joins new-look San Jose crease

Thursday, 09.02.2010 / 2:00 PM / NHL Free Agency 2010

By Adam Kimelman - NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor

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Cup champ Niemi joins new-look San Jose crease
The San Jose Sharks have finished their offseason goaltending overhaul, signing Cup-winning goaltender Antti Niemi to a one-year contract.
San Jose Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson saw all he needed to see of Antti Niemi in four games last season. It happened to be the last four games Wilson's team played, when Niemi backstopped the Chicago Blackhawks to a sweep of the Sharks in the Western Conference Finals.

"It's etched in my brain," Wilson said. Rather than possibly re-live that nightmare, he did the best thing he could think of -- he signed Niemi to a one-year contract Thursday.

Terms of the deal were not revealed, but multiple media reports have Niemi earning $2 million this season.

"We liked our goaltending yesterday and we like it even more today," Wilson said. "When a player like this comes available and wants to join your team, and you don't have to give up any assets … you have to make it happen. We're very pleased with our goaltending unit and we feel we've made ourselves a better hockey team."

Niemi joins fellow Finn Antero Niittymaki, who signed with the Sharks July 1, as a two-man combination in net, replacing long-time starter Evgeni Nabokov, who departed for Russia.

Niemi started his first full NHL season as Cristobal Huet's backup, but stole the starting spot and went 26-7-4 in 39 regular-season games. He was fourth in the League with a 2.25 goals-against average and third with seven shutouts. He was just as good in the playoffs, backstopping the Blackhawks to their first Stanley Cup since 1961 with a six-game series win against the Philadelphia Flyers.

Along the way, he allowed just seven goals on 136 shots as the Hawks swept the Sharks in the conference finals.

"We talked about it when the (conference finals) ended," Wilson said. "Niemi, (Dustin) Byfuglien and (Dave) Bolland were the three difference-makers in that series. He made some big saves at key times. Our staff is very well-aware of him."

Playing in San Jose left a strong impression on Niemi, which is one of the reasons he chose the Sharks.

"I thought it was awesome," Niemi said of the games he played at HP Pavilion. "The atmosphere was great. I think I had the best time there last time."

Niemi became available Aug. 2 when the Blackhawks walked away from the $2.75 million he won in arbitration, which made Niemi an unrestricted free agent. The Blackhawks signed Marty Turco to replace Niemi.

Niemi spent the last month considering his options, but eventually found the Sharks' offer to be the best choice.

"I thought for me it was really important to get to a really good team and a really good organization," Niemi said. "They really wanted me there, too. It wasn't too hard a decision after all."

In San Jose, Niemi will face a similar situation as the one he entered in Chicago, where he had to compete for playing time. Niemi said he doesn't know Niittymaki very well, but Wilson said he made sure Niittymaki was kept abreast of his pursuit of Niemi, as well as making sure Niemi knew he was keeping Niittymaki in the loop.

"We liked our goaltending yesterday and we like it even more today. When a player like this comes available and wants to join your team, and you don't have to give up any assets ... you have to make it happen. We're very pleased with our goaltending unit and we feel we've made ourselves a better hockey team." -- Sharks' GM Doug Wilson

"I think this reveals their character," Wilson said. "They wanted to make sure each other was included in the process. That's very healthy and that impressed me by both goalies."

Wilson said it would be up to coach Todd McLellan to determine playing time, but said he was very happy with his team's goaltending situation, which also includes Thomas Greiss. Greiss, who has a one-way contract, had been pegged as Niittymaki's backup prior to the Niemi signing. Wilson said he also spoke to Greiss prior to signing Niemi.

"We're pretty open with our goals and that's to put the best team on the ice as possible," Wilson said. "That was shared with all parties involved."

Niemi will get his first look at his old team when the Blackhawks come to San Jose Nov. 24. They'll visit again Dec. 11, prior to the Sharks' two trips to Chicago -- Dec. 30 and March 14.

"I think it's going to be the most exciting games of the regular season next year," Niemi said. "It's going to be weird because I used to play for the Blackhawks, but I think I'm going to be extra thrilled for those games."

Wilson also is thrilled to no longer have to see Niemi wearing an opposing team's jersey.

"We like the combination of goaltending we have," he said. "Goaltending is a very important position. We've dedicated 'X' amount of dollars to it and we like the way it's built."

Contact Adam Kimelman at akimelman@nhl.com



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