Penguins Prediction Rewind: Antti Niemi flames out in short stint with team
Note: Last summer, beat writer Jonathan Bombulie made a series of predictions leading up to the start of the 2017-18 season. Some of them were hilariously off the mark. In this series, Bombulie will explain what he was thinking and where his logic went off course.
Antti Niemi will play more than 25 games as Matt Murray’s back-up.
— Niemi’s struggles over the past two seasons might have been caused by Dallas’ leaky defense rather than any personal shortcomings.
— In a little more than a season in the NHL, Murray has missed time with a concussion, a broken hand and a torn hamstring. If that trend doesn’t change, Niemi will be pressed into action whether coach Mike Sullivan likes it or not.
— Too many things would have to happen to keep Niemi under 25 games played. Chances are Niemi will play around 30 games and will probably be pretty decent.
A sample of Facebook comments:
— “I wasn’t a fan of this move, it’s like having Landry Jones as your back-up for (Ben Roethlisberger). Not expecting him to win many games but hope he surprises me.”
— “Murray is a young Vezina-caliber goalie. If he stays healthy, he should be starting around 65 games. There is no reason Niemi should be starting other than in one of their 17 back-to-back games.”
WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED
Twenty-five games? Niemi barely lasted 25 minutes as Murray’s back-up.
The Penguins put him in difficult situations for a back-up goalie to succeed and he responded by not succeeding at all.
In his first start, in the second game of the season, he gave up four goals in less than 10 minutes in a 10-1 loss to Chicago. In his next two starts, he was torched for 12 goals in two lopsided losses to Tampa Bay.
He was on waivers before the end of October, getting claimed by Florida, then traded to Montreal.
His final awful line with the Penguins: 3 games, 128 minutes played, 16 goals allowed, a .797 save percentage.
Once with the Canadiens, Niemi shockingly showed he wasn’t finished after all. He went 7-5-4 with a .929 save percentage and re-signed for another year as Carey Price’s back-up in May.
THE FLAWS IN THE LOGIC
There’s a temptation to conclude that the prediction was terrible – perhaps the worst of the whole series, in hindsight – because Niemi stunk, and leave it at that.
Niemi’s performance with Montreal, however, shows there was more going on than that. He was simply put in a position with the Penguins where he had no choice but to fail.
His three starts were on the tail end of back-to-backs, on the road, against high-octane offenses, with a team in front of him that, coming off back-to-back champion runs, wasn’t ready to give the defensive effort required to win an NHL game.
Dallas’ leaky defense from the previous season looked like the 1974 Steel Curtain compared to the October Penguins. Niemi couldn’t stop the onslaught. It’s fair to wonder whether any goalie could have.
If Niemi had sprained his ankle getting off the bus on that night in Chicago and didn’t make his Penguins debut until December or January, this story might be completely different. Instead, it stands as an embarrassingly bad prediction.
In retrospect, Niemi’s greatest contribution to the Penguins was making sure an impressionable youngster like Tristan Jarry or Casey DeSmith didn’t have to take those three early season bullets. It might have broken their spirits.
It’s very difficult to hack into the Trib’s servers to try to erase a year-old story. Once something is on the internet, it’s on the internet forever.
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.