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Sharks sign Niittymaki to two-year deal

by Mike G. Morreale
San Jose Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson said he's had goalie Antero Niittymaki in his cross-hairs for some time now.

Less than a month after determining he wouldn't renew the contract of All-Star goalie Evgeni Nabokov as a result of salary cap limitations, Wilson proved it when he inked Niittymaki to a two-year deal on Thursday, the opening day of free agency.

"Once the decision was made on Nabber, we went into research on the style of play and type of goalies having success in this League and certainly you don't have to go back too far than seeing the (Antti) Niemis, (Jaroslav) Halaks, (Michael) Leightons and (Jonas) Hillers," Wilson said during a conference call after making the announcement. "When we looked at the style and type of goalie and broke it down, we looked at the guys with a winning history who played in a certain environment and Antero jumped out at us for several reasons.

"He's won MVP in Calder Cup playoffs when he won the Calder Cup in 2004-05 (with the Philadelphia Phantoms), and we liked his performance at the Olympics (in 2006)," he continued. "We've liked him from that point. We think there will be a supply of goalies in this market, but we wanted to go get the guy we wanted and we were proactive in getting him."

Niittymaki led Team Finland to a silver medal at the 2006 Winter Olympics, when he was also named Most Valuable Player of the Games. He also represented Finland at the 2010 Olympics, the 2006 World Championship and the 2000 World Junior Championship.

The 6-foot-1, 215-pound Niittymaki, now 30, was originally selected by the Philadelphia Flyers in the sixth round (No. 168) in the 1998 NHL Entry Draft.

Niittymaki just completed his sixth NHL season with a 21-18-5 record, a .909 save percentage and a 2.87 goals against average with the Tampa Bay Lightning. He went a season-high eight consecutive games without a regulation loss from Jan. 21 thru Feb. 9, including a shutout on Jan. 27 vs. Montreal.

"Everything happened really quick; I didn't really have a plan (entering free agency)," Niittymaki said. "The only thing I knew, I wasn't going back to Tampa. But it was quick and it was a good feeling and good day for me."

For Niittymaki, it will mark his third team in three seasons.

"The move is a lot easier when you're coming to a team this good," Niittymaki said during the conference call. "Last summer I wasn't sure where I was going to go and what was going to happen, but I ended up having a decent year (in Tampa Bay). If you have to move, it's a lot nicer to move to a really good team."

Tampa Bay All-Star forward Martin St. Louis admitted "Nitty" would be missed.

"Niittymaki gave us a chance to win very time he was in net last year," St. Louis said. "He was a good goalie. San Jose is going to be very happy. He's the guy that battles in practice, will stay out as long as you need. He'll be missed in Tampa."

Prior to his one season in Tampa Bay, Niittymaki played parts of five seasons with the Philadelphia Flyers from 2003-09. In 210 career games, Niittymaki has an 83-79-28 record with a 2.98 goals against average, a .903 save percentage and five shutouts. He won a career-high 23 games in 2005-06 with the Flyers, and his .912 save percentage in 2008-09 with Philadelphia was his best for a full season.

For now, the Sharks will have Niittymaki and Thomas Greiss as their goalies. Greiss, a German Olympian, went 7-4-1 with a 2.68 goals-against average and .912 save percentage in 16 appearances for the Sharks as the backup to Nabokov this past season.

"Tyson (Sexsmith) will also compete and Harri Sateri (who played in Finland last season) is another high-end goalie in our system," Wilson said. "There's a lot of competition, and (the starter) will be decided on the ice. But Antero, with his history, certainly will get every opportunity."

Despite winning 293 regular-season games during his 10 seasons in San Jose, Nabokov shouldered much of the blame for the team's postseason failures in recent years. He didn't deliver for Team Russia as the starter at the 2010 Olympics and was swept by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference Final. The Sharks finished either first or second in the Western Conference the last three seasons -- accruing over 100 points each time -- but failed to reach the Stanley Cup Final.

"When we looked at the style and type of goalie and broke it down, we looked at the guys with a winning history who played in a certain environment and Antero jumped out at us for several reasons." -- Sharks GM Doug Wilson
Niittymaki admitted some surprise that Nabokov wasn't re-signed.

"There were rumors already, that San Jose might have cap issues because they had to sign (Patrick) Marleau and (Joe) Pavelski; and they have (Joe) Thornton and (Dany) Heatley, who are making a lot of money," Niittymaki said. "But Nabby is top 3-to-5 goalie. He's had a lot of 40-win seasons so it's surprising to see a guy like that leave a team but it's a business. It happens. He's been here a long time and sometimes it just happens."

Nabokov went 44-16-10 with a 2.43 GAA, .922 save percentage and 3 shutouts in 71 appearances for the Sharks in 2009-10.

"We have a new system and new set of rules and, looking all the way back to when Cam Ward (Carolina Hurricanes) and Chris Osgood (Detroit Red Wings) won Cups and got it done ... I think that's really what has happened and that's what we discussed as a staff," Wilson said. "Let's talk about what it is instead of who. You're always looking for the next Niemi or Hiller, and that's what happening."

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