Kari Lehtonen (left) and Antti Niemi (Steven Ryan/NHLI via Getty Images)
Dallas may be battling for top spot in the Central Division, but the play of Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen has been concerning. And even if the Stars make a deep run this season, the goaltending duo and their big-money contracts could hurt Dallas’ chances at building a strong, well-rounded contender.
A quick look at the standings gives the impression that the high-flying Stars don’t have any glaring holes. With 16 games remaining, Dallas is tied with Chicago for the Central Division lead and they’ve kept pace with the Blackhawks — and times been ahead of the defending champions — throughout the season.
It’s not that simple, though, and there’s reason to wonder where the Stars would be were it not for their league-leading offense. Many have pointed to Dallas’ defense corps as one of their biggest weaknesses, the team’s potential Achilles heel, but Stars GM Jim Nill attempted to address the deficiencies on the blueline at the trade deadline by acquiring Kris Russell. Granted, it doesn’t help the Stars any when John Klingberg and Jordie Benn have to miss time with injuries, but neither appear to be long-term injuries.
Even with those injuries, though, it’s not defense that should be Dallas’ greatest concern. If there’s anything the Stars should be worrying about it’s their goaltending — and not just short-term, either.
It’s not as if Dallas’ struggles between the pipes were any secret heading into the 2015-16 season, but Nill believed he had addressed the issue in the off-season by inking former Sharks netminder Antti Niemi to a three-year, $13.5-million contract. The idea was to have two potential starting goaltenders, which was a way of giving the Stars another option should Kari Lehtonen falter as he had in previous seasons. At the time of the signing, Nill explained the signing of Niemi as an insurance policy of sorts.
“Between the travel, the back-to-back situations, how close our division -- if it's not the toughest, it's one of the toughest -- the competition, a win here on the road, a win there in a back-to-back, if a goalie gets injured, we know we now have that covered,” Nill said in June.
While that’s all good and well in theory, it doesn’t work in practice if neither of the goaltenders are capable of handling the competition. And while both Lehtonen and Niemi have shown their ability in the past, this season — and especially the past two months — have been a different story altogether.
Since Jan. 1, the Stars, who are tied for first in the Central, have the seventh-worst record in the league. The Columbus Blue Jackets, Carolina Hurricanes and Ottawa Senators have all fared better, and Dallas’ performance has been roughly the same as that of the Buffalo Sabres and Arizona Coyotes. That’s incredible considering over that same period, the Stars have scored the tenth-most goals, but it makes more sense when you realize no team has allowed as many goals against as Dallas.
Over the same two-plus month period, there are 38 goaltenders who have played at least 500 minutes at 5-on-5. Of those goaltenders, Dallas’ duo are in the bottom five of save percentage. At 5-on-5, Niemi — who, remember, was brought in part as relief for Lehtonen — is worst among the 38 goaltenders with a .892 SP, with Lehtonen’s SP only marginally better at .906. This has been the case for most of the season, too.
Of the 41 goaltenders who have played 1,000 minutes at 5-on-5 in 2015-16, Lehtonen and Niemi still both rank in the bottom third, with Lehtonen having the worse numbers over the course of the season. Through 32 games, Lehtonen ranks 39th of the 41 goaltenders with a .908 5-on-5 SP. Niemi has been the better of the two, ranking 31st among the 41 netminders with a 5-on-5 SP of .920. That’s dropping quickly due to his recent performances, however.
Say what you will for the effect Dallas’ defense has had on the play of the Stars’ duo, too. It’s definitely worth noting that Dallas has allowed the second-most high-danger scoring chances against since Jan. 1, but they’re in the same range as two divisional rivals, Chicago and Colorado, in that category. Over that period, though, Blackhawks netminder Corey Crawford’s 5-on-5 SP is .948 — second only to the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist — and the Avalanche have gotten a .928 effort from Calvin Pickard and .912 SP from Semyon Varlamov.
With how the Stars offense has scored this season, though, there’s a chance Dallas can use their high-tempo offense to win a playoff round or two and possibly make a deep run in the post-season. There’s even a chance one of Niemi or Lehtonen could heat up come playoff time and help spark the run. But the goaltending issue goes beyond this season, as for the next two years Dallas will have both Niemi and Lehtonen tied up at a combined cap hit of $10.4 million. That’s a lot of money committed to two goaltenders who haven’t gotten the job done this season and aren’t really all that far below their career norms.
That issue is further amplified when you consider that if Dallas wants to try to improve their blueline, they’re probably going to want to keep Alex Goligoski and Jason Demers around, both of whom are set to become unrestricted free agents next season. Same goes for Russell and Benn. That’s not to mention both Stephen Johns and Jamie Oleksiak will need new deals as restricted free agents, too. As does the ever-improving Valeri Nichushkin, the young Russian winger who could be the most costly of the three RFAs.
This would all be made easier if the Stars had a bluechip goaltending prospect waiting in the wings. However, that’s simply not the case. Jack Campbell, the 11th overall pick in 2010, has gone from AHL starter to playing the bulk of his season in the ECHL, and it’s too soon to tell what’s to come from Maxime Lagace or Philippe Desrosiers.
The reality is that with an estimated $56-million already committed against the salary cap next season, there’s not going to be much room to bring in free agents to improve the blueline, either. And the Stars, at least this season, haven’t gotten their money’s worth from the $10-plus million tied up in goaltending. That’s a problem this season, no doubt, but if Dallas is hoping to build a well-rounded contender, their goaltending could be a major issue for at least the next couple seasons barring a savvy move by Nill.
(Advanced stats via War-On-Ice)