MONTREAL — It’s $950,000 and a year of security Antti Niemi truly earned the hard way.
Boy, does he ever deserve the new one-way contract he signed on Tuesday. He authored a beautiful story with every valiant performance he put forth this season behind a 28th-placed Montreal Canadiens team that couldn’t score and couldn’t defend. He revived his career from November to April after nearly obliterating it from the start of the season until the day he landed in Montreal via waivers. And he should be celebrating all of that right now.
Sure, some credit is due to Stephane Waite, the Canadiens’ goaltending guru who helped Niemi build the road map to his redemption. He helped him reset mentally and helped him with a couple of very basic and standard technical tweaks.
But the lion’s share of the credit goes to the Finnish netminder who showed he battles as hard on the ice as he proved he does off of it.
Think about the damage done to Niemi’s psyche — never mind to his reputation — after he was bought out by the Dallas Stars last summer, signed and waived by the Pittsburgh Penguins in a flash, and claimed and dumped by the Florida Panthers in a matter of days. Think about the mental fortitude it took to overcome all of that.
From the outside looking in, the situation appeared insurmountable. That’s why Niemi’s arrival with the Canadiens on Nov. 14 was met with total and absolute derision.
The numbers justified that reaction. They were staggering.
It was widely thought they’d be well below league average after Niemi posted a 3.30 goals-against average and a .892 save percentage in 37 games with the Stars last season. But a 7.49 goals-against average and a .797 save percentage in three games with the defending Stanley Cup Champion Penguins? A 5.11 and .872 in two games with the Panthers? Those were horror-show bad.
So you would have excused the glass-half-full Montreal fans for being skeptical, and you’d have certainly not sneered at the cynics who felt the Canadiens, who had gotten off to their worst start to a season in 76 years, had made a laughable decision to bring Niemi on board.
But once people came to terms with this being a fait d’accompli, most assumed Niemi was just being parachuted in to warm the bench while 24-year-old rookie Charlie Lindgren took care of business in starter Carey Price’s short-term absence. They figured he’d be gone as soon as Price returned from his minor knee injury—and once backup Al Montoya had recuperated from his concussion; that he might not even play a game for the Canadiens; that he’d be waived once more, go unclaimed, and probably never be seen again in an NHL uniform.
Niemi knew that was a possibility, but he never focused on it as an eventuality.
“I am just going to take things step-by-step,” he told Sportsnet as he peeled off his Panthers equipment following his first practice with the Canadiens. “I’m so happy they took a chance on me. It’s a chance to show I can still play in this league. I’m excited for the opportunity. I’m looking forward to proving myself.”
He wasted no time.
Niemi’s first start came against the Nashville Predators—with the Canadiens playing the second half of a back-to-back on the road—and he stood on his head, making 31 saves in a 3-2 shootout loss.
He then made a habit of it.
Niemi allowed two or less goals in 11 of his 17 appearances that followed, and he finished with a 7-5-4 record, a 2.46 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage with the Canadiens.
The performance had him nominated by the Montreal chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association for the Bill Masterton Award, but more importantly helped extend his career.
The Canadiens benefitted halfway through. Comforted by Niemi’s quick rebound, they traded Montoya to the Edmonton Oilers on Jan. 4 in exchange for a fourth-round pick in the 2018 NHL Draft.
And now they’re benefiting more. They have a capable backup in Niemi, who is signed to a contract that barely puts a dent in their cap space; a contract that will be easy to move if necessary.
And if Niemi performs as he did for them last season, the Canadiens have bought themselves more time to develop Lindgren in the AHL—where he’ll see much more action than he would behind Price in Montreal.
That’s all gravy for the Canadiens, but it pales in comparison to what it is for the 34-year-old goaltender.
He was a Cup champion with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010, and he hit his stride with the San Jose Sharks from 2011 to 2014. Then he tumbled from grace with the Stars from 2015-17. He was nearing the depths of a black hole this year before the Canadiens extended their arm. But it was him who grabbed it and managed to climb his way back to the surface.