Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi. Image by: Steven Ryan/Getty Images
Now that Ben Bishop has signed with the Stars, Dallas GM Jim Nill needs to decide if Antti Niemi or Kari Lehtonen sticks around to help man the crease.
The Stars have their goalie. After shipping a fourth-round pick to the Los Angeles Kings for Ben Bishop’s rights, Dallas went ahead and inked the 30-year-old netminder to a six-year, $29.5-million deal, and even without stepping foot on the ice in a Stars uniform, Bishop has immediately leapt up the depth chart to become the new No. 1 in the Lone Star State.
But if finding and signing a starter was the tricky part of Dallas GM Jim Nill, now comes the even trickier part. With Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi both under contract for one more year, Nill has to decide two big things. The first is which goaltender, if either, he wants to have around to share the crease with Bishop next season. The second thing Nill has to consider is what he’s going to do with the goaltender he no longer needs — or wants — around.
Some would suggest that the first decision is an easy one and that Nill has already come to the conclusion that Niemi is on the outs. Matter of fact, the Dallas Morning News’ Mike Heika reported last week that Niemi was the target for either a trade or a buyout in the off-season, depending on whether or not the Vegas Golden Knights decided to take a shot on either of the netminders in the expansion draft. But it might not be so cut and dry.
Statistically, Lehtonen seems to be the clear choice. Since he and Niemi joined forces in the Stars crease, Lehtonen has turned in a .904 save percentage and 2.82 goals-against average to go along with five shutouts. And while it’s not worlds better than Niemi, those marks do still stand above the .900 SP, 2.92 GAA and three shutouts ‘Nemo’ has turned in since becoming a Star. But realistically, there’s even less separating the goaltenders than it would appear looking at base statistics. When it comes to 5-on-5 SP, Lehtonen holds a slight edge — we’re talking less than thousandths — over Niemi, with both posting roughly a .918 SP. Lehtonen also holds an edge in stopping mid- and high-danger shots against, while Niemi has been better at turning aside shots that have come from low-danger areas.
Any way you slice it, though, both have been dreadful. Of the 44 goaltenders to play at least 2,500 minutes at 5-on-5, Lehtonen and Niemi rank 38th and 39th, respectively, in SP. At all strengths, the duo ranks 43rd and 44th in SP among the 44 goaltenders who have played at least 60 games over the past two seasons. So, really, it’s about as close to a wash as it gets when it comes to numbers. Both have suffered from poor play in Dallas, and that’s why there’s another number that could — and maybe should — come into play: cap hit.
Getting Bishop to come to town was, undoubtedly, the most important move the Stars had to make this off-season. But after another year where substandard defensive play was as much to blame for Dallas’ shortcomings as their mediocre-at-best goaltending, the Stars could use some additions on the backend. Where Dallas finds defensive help is to be seen, but adding on the blueline is going to require the money to do so. That’s where hanging on to Niemi has a potential upside.
Both goaltenders are in the final years of their contracts this coming season, with Lehtonen set to earn $5.9 million and Niemi on the hook for $4.5 million. The Stars have roughly $19 million to spend this summer, but contracts to dole out to RFAs Brett Ritchie, Radek Faksa and defenders Jamie Oleksiak, Patrik Nemeth and Esa Lindell. That’s not to mention UFA considerations for Patrick Sharp, Ales Hemsky and Jiri Hudler. Once those deals are done, though, the Stars will likely look to tackle the free agent market to strengthen their roster. Keeping Niemi and jettisoning Lehtonen stands to give Dallas more money to spend this off-season on beefing up the blueline and adding a few pieces up front.
Obviously, the best way to get rid of either netminder would be via trade, but finding a taker is going to be remarkably difficult given the play of Lehtonen and Niemi in recent years. That’s especially true given the sizeable cap hits both netminders carry. No team is going to want to take on a salary that large unless there’s something coming back the other way. The Stars would need to throw in an additional prospect or pick that can entice a team to be saddled with a goaltender who’s not likely to start all that often.
Prospective trade partners could include the Flames, who are going to be in the market for a goaltender once again, but it’s hard to fathom a situation in which Calgary is going to want to risk another ugly year between the pipes. The Buffalo Sabres might be in need of a backup, but trading for Niemi or Lehtonen would be ill-advised. The New York Islanders may also be considering their options for a backup if Jaroslav Halak leaves town, and the same goes for the Philadelphia Flyers with Steve Mason. The Coyotes are an option when it comes to a team willing to stomach the cap hit, but one would imagine the auxiliary assets would have to blow Arizona’s hair back in order for that deal to be completed.
That’s why the best hope for the Stars to be entirely free of the cap hit of either Lehtonen or Niemi is the Golden Knights and the expansion draft. Vegas has to have a cap hit of at least $43.8 million following the expansion draft, so taking on either Lehtonen or Niemi would certainly help in the Golden Knights’ effort to hit their minimum salary cap requirement. It would also give the team the chance to add a goaltender with NHL experience, regardless of how successful they’ve been in the past few seasons. And that’s not to mention Dallas could sweeten the pot and work out a deal that nudges Vegas towards the selection of either of the Stars’ castoff netminders.
If that doesn’t come to pass — and, let’s be honest, it seems rather unlikely — then the next option is a buyout, which comes with another interesting wrinkle. Remember the cap savings? Well, the Stars stand to save more by buying out Lehtonen. If Niemi is bought out, Dallas would save $3 million next season and the Stars would be dinged for $1.5 million in 2018-19. Buying out Lehtonen, meanwhile, would save the Stars $3.33 million in 2017-18 and while costing them $1.67 million in 2018-19. Is that enough to keep Niemi around, though? Somehow we doubt it.
Nill has to make a smart decision, and it’d be best to base it off of statistics before anything else. Despite their poor finish this past season, the Stars are a win-now team. With Bishop’s tough injury history it might be wise to keep the better of two insurance policies, even if it’s going to cost a bit more for what might seem like only a minimal benefit. That’s why if the choice becomes Nill’s, which is to say he has to go the buyout route, hanging on to Lehtonen makes the most sense.
But the reality is that while Nill has made the move required of him to vastly improve the Stars’ goaltending situation, he’s not done his work in the crease quite yet. And he won’t be until one of Niemi or Lehtonen are no longer Stars.
Want more in-depth features and expert analysis on the game you love? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.