Niittymaki, Niemi compete for Sharks' goalie spot

BY foxsports • September 17, 2010

Antero Niittymaki's new goaltender mask features a couple of cartoon Sharks grinning malevolently beneath mobster-style fedoras. One shark totes a machine gun that could be straight from "The Untouchables."

"It describes how there's a new big fish in town," David Arrigo, the Toronto-based artist who crafted the mask, said last month.

Arrigo's sentiment quickly became outdated. When the Sharks open training camp Saturday, there will be two new big fish in goal: Niittymaki and Stanley Cup winner Antti Niemi.

The Sharks signed Niemi on Sept. 2, nine weeks after they had signed Niittymaki as the heir apparent to Evgeni Nabokov.

"Obviously I don't know how it's going to affect ice time," Niittymaki said of the Sharks adding Niemi, "but then I never talked with them about that when I signed. Healthy competition is always a good thing. We're both Finns, and I'm sure we'll get along well."

Despite being fellow countrymen, Niittymaki and Niemi barely know each other.

"I met him for the first time this summer, and we talked for about 10 minutes," Niittymaki said. "I was already over here (in the NHL) when he came up. I played against him last season, but we didn't have a chance to talk."

During the offseason, Niittymaki heard the scuttlebutt that Niemi might be San Jose-bound after being let go by the salary-cap-strapped Chicago Blackhawks. He and Sharks general manager Doug Wilson discussed it as well.

"There were a lot of rumors," Niittymaki said. "I had to answer questions about the possibility a couple times back home. Then I talked to Wilson about it a couple days before it happened. So I wouldn't say that it was totally out of the blue."

In any case, the task ahead is daunting — filling the pads of Nabokov, the most accomplished goaltender in Sharks history.

"This is a fresh beginning for the franchise," said defenseman Dan Boyle, who might succeed the retired Rob Blake as team captain. "Nabby was here for 10 years. We're ready to turn the page."

Nabokov, whom the Sharks let go in June, won 333 games over the decade.

In five-plus NHL seasons, Niittymaki, 30, has posted an 83-79-28 record. Last season, he went 21-18-5 with a 2.87 goals-against average with the Tampa Bay Lightning. He is best known for leading Finland to a 2006 Olympic silver medal and earning tournament MVP honors. Niemi, 27, became a starter for Chicago as a rookie last season and went 26-7-4 with a 2.25 goals-against-average. Then he went 16-6 in the playoffs, defeating the Sharks along the way and helping Chicago win its first Cup since 1961.

Sharks coach Todd McLellan said it will be an open competition in training camp, and he was quick to add the name of last year's backup, Thomas Greiss.

"Ultimately, a goalie decides his own fate when it comes to how many games he plays," McLellan said. "Whoever is playing well and doing what they're supposed to do is going to get to play."

It seems probable, though, that the Sharks will be an all-Finnish goaltending tandem — adding to that country's growing reputation as a goalie factory. They could be one of Finland's leading exports.

"Right after Nokia, I guess," Niittymaki joked.

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