The Tampa Bay Lightning goaltending situation is already a topic of discussion. There are a few goaltending prospects in the minors and in Europe, but none seem to be quite ready to take over as number one. Though one or two could be a serviceable backup.
At this time, Mike Smith is still under contract, but Antero Niittymaki isn’t - or he won’t be when the free agency feeding frenzy hits July 1st. Niitymaki is technically still under contract until then, however, and it is up to GM Steve Yzerman to decide whether he's worth keeping. If either of them are worth keeping, really.
Niittymaki is an unrestricted free agent, while Smith has one more year on his contract and is expected to make $2.4m (but that counts only a $2.2m cap hit for the 2010-2011 season). Niittymaki became the de facto starter for the last half of the 2009-2010 season, as most Lightning fans already know. Just as a refresher, here are their comparative stats:
|2009 - Antero Niittymaki||49||2657||21||18||127||2.87||1388||1261||.909||1|
|2009 - Mike Smith||42||2273||13||18||117||3.09||1165||1048||.900||2|
The obvious value of keeping Niittymaki is his career record against the Southeast Division. Against Atlanta alone, he’s a perfect 17-0-0. When a playoff berth comes down to division records, you don’t get much more valuable than that.
Besides that, he’s just a flat out good goaltender. In 2006, he was the starter for the Finnish Olympic team. And he managed to help his squad make it to the gold medal game, though they had to settle for a silver medal versus a stacked Swedish team. He was the backup goalie for the Finnish team at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, and earned himself a bronze medal for it.
There are three big concerns in keeping Niittymaki, however. One is health. He has had hip problems in the past, though none of that seemed to have been a problem for him last season. Still, he did just turn 30 and you never know when that might come up again.
The two other concerns are rather meshed together. Smith was designated by the last coach, Rick Tocchet, as the starter - and he’s being paid as such. However, he lost the starting job to Niittymaki partway through the season. So, in reality, Smith was an overpaid backup goaltender as of the end of last season. Niittymaki was making close to the league minimum last season - $600,000 - and he was a very underpaid starting goaltender. So if he’s re-signed by the Lightning, you can expect that number to go up.
Not only does keeping both become a cap issue, but it also becomes a personnel issue. While retaining both Smith and Niittymaki isn’t necessarily a bad idea, it does make you wonder how any of the prospects in the minors will get any playing time. Do you let Niittymaki the starter leave and keep Smith the backup – who was inconsistent at best last season?
Or do you try to trade Smith and keep Niittymaki, who provided dependable goaltending on a team with little defensive help? Trading Smith may be problematic, because of his inconsistent effort last season and also because his salary. But the fact is, he may benefit greatly from a change of scenery.
All people show their true colors during times of adversity, and you don’t see much more adversity than there was the past couple of seasons in Tampa Bay. The bottom line is that Niittymaki proved himself to be the better goaltender last season, and even in under less than ideal conditions, he still shined. Smith didn’t. That in and of itself should tell Steve Yzerman who the team ought to try to keep between the two.