SAN JOSE Even before opening night, it was easy to predict that the Sharks would have a decision to make with their goaltending in late December.
How difficult that decision would be depended solely on Thomas Greiss.
Antti Niemi was the undisputed starter and Greiss would be his backup, while Antero Niittymaki recovered from hip surgery that was to sideline him for the first three months. If Greiss faltered while Niittymaki recovered, he would probably be subjected to waivers and the American Hockey League while the club welcomed back the veteran Niittymaki.
That didnt happen. Greiss established himself as a reliable NHL backup to Niemi, never surrendering his position even when Niittymaki was declared healthy, and it was Niittymaki who was put on the trading block before being exiled to Worcester just after the All-Star break.
After practice on Friday at Sharks Ice, Greiss was asked if Niittymakis return to health was in the back of his mind while the early season progressed.
You try not to worry about it. Theres so much that can always happen, like injuries or whatever, he said.
And his response to Niittymaki being placed on waivers?
It wasnt really that big a reaction. I didnt even really worry about it. I come here every day and work, Greiss said.
Greiss could be playing down the perception that hes now firmly a part of the teams plans for the rest of this season and probably next, but he could very well be telling the truth, too. That laid back personality and friendly nature has endeared himself to his teammates, according to coach Todd McLellan.
Thats part of the reason that Greiss numbers (7-4-1, 1.98 goals-against average, .925 save percentage) are so impressive after all, a goaltenders statistics can often be a reflection of how well the team is performing in front of him.
The head coach used a football analogy (hey, it is Super Bowl week) to describe it.
Its maybe like the quarterback position, how important that offensive line is. They either play with the quarterback or they play for the quarterback. I think thats how it is with goaltending, too. You either play with the goaltender or you play for the goaltender.
Greisser has it set up on this team where guys play for him. I really believe that. Hes well liked, he works his butt off all the time, and when hes thrown in there they want to play well for him.
Its been quite the journey for the German native, drafted in the third round of the 2004 draft and who turned 26 on Jan. 29. He played four seasons in North America for San Jose and Worcester, before being transferred to the Swedish Elite League for 2010-11. He didnt like it there, and came back to the Sharks organization over the summer despite the club having two able-bodied, veteran netminders on its roster for the upcoming season.
Doug Wilson and his staff made it clear they wanted him back, though, and Greiss listened.
I think Thomas seized the opportunity when he chose to come back and sign here. He believed in what Doug and the management staff had told him when they sat down and said listen, you have an opportunity here and we want you back. Thats not an easy thing for him to do after he had been reassigned to Europe, McLellan said.
I think he was confident and he believed in what he was doing and we believed in him, and he came in and did it. It wasnt necessarily the three months of playing and that helped but I think the day he signed he was bound and determined that it was going to be his.
At the same time, the Sharks had to be a little wary to give Greiss the keys to the ship in such an important season, especially when Niemi had surgery in September, forcing Greiss to start the first three games of the regular season. Greiss had just 19 games of NHL experience under his belt at that point, with mixed results.
If there were any doubts then, though, Niittymakis assignment to Worcester is proof enough that Greiss now has the organizations complete confidence.
In fact, you could even make a case that he could challenge for the number one goaltender on a few NHL teams that are struggling in net if not right away, but in the near future. That, combined with his low salary cap hit through next season, could make him an attractive target for NHL teams as the trade deadline approaches.
Hed obviously love to be a number one at some point.
Clearly thats what I want to be, eventually. Well see what happens, he said.
For now, though, hell continue to bide his time and do his duty for a Stanley Cup contender.
McLellan said: Hes still a young NHL goaltender, not necessarily in years but in his experience here. That will take some time to grow, but he works on his game every day and gets good coaching from our goaltending staff.
Theres a chance for him to continue to grow.