Is Antti Niemi the Top Rookie in the NHL?

Two years ago, Patrick Kane was named the top rookie in the NHL, bringing home the prestigious Calder Trophy. The runner-up to Kane that year was Jonathan Toews.

Last year, Kris Versteeg was a finalist for the award.

Is Niemi next?

And now, after another sterling performance on Wednesday night, Antti Niemi’s stat sheet is starting to look too good to stay off the ice. Unfortunately, because he was born a little more than two weeks before the NHL’s age cutoff for the Calder Trophy, Niemi isn’t eligible for the award this year. But that doesn’t change his status as one of, if not the top rookie in the NHL.

Niemi has only started nine games (appearing in 10, coming in to get the win in the memorable five-goal comeback against Calgary), but his record is now 8-1-1 to begin his NHL career. His 1.59 goals against average would be well below the rest of the qualifying goaltenders in the NHL this year, and his .937 save percentage would also rank near the top of the league. Already, Niemi’s four shut outs are good for second in the NHL.

Last year, Versteeg lost the Calder Trophy to Columbus goalie Steve Mason. Mason took the league by storm, but his numbers pale in comparison to the season Niemi is having off the Chicago bench. In 2008-09, Mason had 10 shut outs in 61 games, a 2.29 goals against average and a .916 save percentage. His 33-20-7 record would also be within reach if Niemi saw more ice time.

The trouble, however, is that not only is Cristobal Huet making over $5 million this year, but he hasn’t been bad himself. Despite a couple rough games early in the season and a less-than-stellar effort against San Jose on Tuesday, Huet still ranks among the best in the NHL in a number of categories this year.

Among qualified goaltenders, Huet ranks third in goals against average (2.05) and tenth in wins (15). However, his save percentage of .913 is only good for 18th in the league so far.

Niemi has recorded shut outs of Florida (in Helsinki), at Vancouver, against Tampa Bay at the United Center and now in Detroit. The shut out in Vancouver was a 1-0 win during the Circus Trip on Nov. 22, one of the better efforts from either Hawks goaltender this year.

In that game, Niemi stopped 30 shots in a hostile environment to earn a big win over a Western Conference rival. On Wednesday, Niemi stopped 33 shots at Joe Louis Arena against a hungry Detroit team that had been embarrassed just two days earlier.

In his last five games, Niemi has allowed only five goals. Four of those tallies came in the Hawks shootout win over Boston on Dec. 18 at the United Center; Niemi has only allowed one goal in four games surrounding that contest.

There are a number of other rookies having strong seasons this year. John Tavares of the New York Islanders has 27 points to lead all rookies, but that ranks only 56th in the NHL currently and his minus-five rating leaves a lot to be desired. Michael Del Zotto of the Rangers leads rookie blue liners with 20 points, but he’s minus-13 on the season.

Niemi might be too old to win the Calder Trophy this year, but with the condensed schedule to accommodate the Olympics, he should see more action as the season progresses. Watch for Niemi to continue playing strong between the pipes, and with increased playing time he should at least put Huet into the trade rumors next summer.

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