Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi. Image by: Steven Ryan/Getty Images
Nothing has gone the Stars’ way in what was supposed to be a Cup-contending season. With so many injuries and many pending free agents, becoming a seller could be their best strategy.
We should’ve seen it coming, really. The Dallas Stars were a seriously flawed hockey club. But their strengths were just so intoxicating.
They blitzed the NHL with 3.23 goals per game last season, topping all 29 other teams, even the potent Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins. Dallas boasted the league’s best tandem of elite scorers in Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. Defenseman John Klingberg broke out with a 58-point sophomore year and finished sixth in Norris Trophy voting. The Stars won the hotly contested Central Division with 109 points, finished with the NHL’s second-best record and came within one victory of the Western Conference final.
So we can forgive ourselves for being so jazzed about their 2016-17 potential that we picked them to reach the Stanley Cup final. This team was as fun as any in hockey last year. In reality, though, it had some holes and chose not to address them in the off-season.
The first was goaltending, of course. Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi, the infamous $10.4-million tandem, ranked 38th (.906) and 40th (.905) among the NHL’s 44 qualified leaders in save percentage. The Stars as a team ranked 24th out of 30 teams in SP at .904. Lehtonen and Niemi were inconsistent throughout the playoffs, and while each had his moments, they wilted in Game 7 of the Central Division final against St. Louis and ultimately cost Dallas the series. I spoke at length with Stars GM Jim Nill over the summer, and he was convinced his goalies deserved another shot. He shot down rumors of a Ben Bishop or Marc-Andre Fleury acquisition. To briefly revisit that interview:
“Right now we’ve got two goalies that came in and, say what you want, but they got 50 wins for us and we got second overall in the league, so something had to go right.
"Unfortunately, all anybody’s really remembering is our last game of the year against St. Louis. Nobody remembers the game before that where Kari stood on his head to get us into Game 7. There were definitely times in the season where they would’ve liked some games back. But that’s kind of on our whole team. Every team goes through that. I really think they’re going to be better this year. It was kind of a feeling-out process last year, and now they’ve both settled in. We’re status quo, and they’ve got the ability to be better than last year, which I hope turns into even more wins for us next year."
Well, it hasn’t. The opposite happened. Lehtonen and Niemi continue to bleed goals this year. Niemi sits 37th in SP at .902, Lehtonen 39th at .899. The Stars have slid to 27th in team SP. I caught up with Nill again this week, though, and he was quick to defend them.
“To be fair, they haven’t been our issue,” Nill said. “Our special teams have been terrible, especially our penalty kill.”
He’s right. The Stars’ penalty kill ranks 29th in the NHL, their power play 19th. And there’s further statistical validity to the idea Lehtonen and Niemi don’t deserve all the blame. Lehtonen’s advanced metrics actually suggest he’s been much better than advertised, as he rates well above average in even-strength SP, low-danger SP and medium-danger SP. Niemi has been outstanding stopping low-danger shots, rating right up there with the league’s best. The problem: both goalies have been weak against high-danger chances, Niemi against medium-danger ones too, and the Stars just happen to specialize in allowing those. They rank third last in the league 5-on-5 in expected save percentage, which is how likely the average shot is to go in, and that reflects the quality of chances surrendered.
That’s where the second major flaw we ignored comes in: team defense. The Stars were a powerhouse of possession on the offensive side of the puck last year but were subpar defensively, often peppered with shot attempts from their opposition. They overhauled their blueline in the summer, trading Alex Goligoski’s rights and letting Jason Demers and Kris Russell walk in free agency. The plan had pros and cons. On one hand, it wasn’t the worst idea to change up a D-corps that was mediocre anyway, and the Stars had a truckload of promising young D-men ready for NHL roles, from Stephen Johns to Esa Lindell to Julius Honka to Patrik Nemeth to Jamie Oleksiak. On the other hand, it probably would’ve been best to rely on one of two of those guys in major roles – not all of them.
Honka’s only appeared in eight NHL games this season, and his possession numbers actually look quite good. But every other member of the Stars’ D-corps, including the rookie group, free agent signing Dan Hamhuis and even vets like Johnny Oduya – has gotten lit up. The “best” mark in 5-on-5 Corsi Against per 60 among the entire group is Johns’ 56.11. Klingberg has found himself a healthy scratch more than once. The Stars rate 26th as a team in Corsi Against. They were below average defensively last year, ranking 19th, but their offense bailed them out.
This year, the scoring hasn’t been around to mask the flaws. Benn has battled several injuries, having core muscle surgery at the start of the season, injuring his foot a few weeks ago and breaking his nose over the weekend. Mattias Janmark and Ales Hemsky are out with long-term injuries. Valeri Nichushkin returned to the KHL. The Stars have slipped to 15th in offense at 2.69 goals per game. A lot of that can be blamed on rotten luck, but that doesn’t change the fact it’s happened.
“I never like to make excuses, I don’t believe in it, but with the parity in the league and the condensed schedule, injuries made it tough,” Nill said. “We started on the wrong foot, with six of our top nine forwards injured.”
So the Stars’ huge strength has been neutralized, and their flaws have dragged them down in the standings. They’re 19-20-9, four points out of a Western Conference wild-card position, buoyed by a whopping nine overtime or shootout defeats.
“Our special teams have been terrible, especially our penalty kill.”
Now Nill has some tough decisions to make. This team boasts a ton of talent and, for all its struggles, remains surprisingly alive in the playoff race. The optimistic line of thinking would have Nill finally pursue a goaltending upgrade in the form of Bishop, Fleury or perhaps Semyon Varlamov and seek veteran help on defense. After all, Nill has so many good young ‘D’ prospects that he could spare one or even two. While he didn’t suggest this week to THN.com any trades were imminent, he left the door open a crack when I asked him about goaltending, suggesting “we always want to make our team better.”
Chasing a Stanley Cup at this point, though, would be a mistake. The Stars still have a bright future, but they’re best off accepting 2016-17 as a disaster year and coming back strong. Why?
First off, Benn just can’t get healthy, or at least he doesn’t look it. He hasn’t been himself. He’s as tough as any player in the sport, having not missed a game last year after surgeries on each hip during the 2015 off-season, but that may work against him right now. To get the peak Benn, Dallas would probably be best off resting him for an extended period and saving him from himself. Worrying about a playoff hunt won’t allow that to happen.
“We’ve had discussions and he says he’s healthy,” Nill said. “But is he ‘healthy but not healthy’? Only he can answer that. He’s been adamant that he’s healthy, though. We have not discussed shutting him down. “
Secondly, the Stars still have an extremely promising group of prospects, especially on the defensive side of the puck. Why mortgage away a Honka or Lindell or Johns, or a forward like Jason Dickinson or Denis Gurianov, when the playoffs look like a long shot right now anyway? Dallas can spend another year developing the kids.
Most importantly, Dallas’ salary situation suggests there’s a ton to gain by folding up the tent and deciding to sell. They have some extremely attractive pending unrestricted free agents to rent out. Plenty of teams would trip over themselves to get Patrick Sharp and his three Stanley Cup rings. Same goes for Oduya, a two-time champ with the Hawks, who has proven he can eat huge minutes as top-four blueliner under playoff pressure. Heck, the Hawks might be wise to reacquire both. Patrick Eaves has enjoyed a major breakout year, with 17 goals already, but he’s 32 and injury prone. Why not cash in that chip? Jiri Hudler and Lauri Korpikoski are UFAs as well. The Stars could further pack their system with picks and prospects with a nice trade-deadline fire sale.
Lastly, waiting until summer to fix the goaltending situation might come in handy. After this season, Lehtonen and Niemi have one year remaining on their contracts. They suddenly become much easier commodities to move. It’s unlikely the Vegas Golden Knights claim one of them, but GM George McPhee might see some appeal to picking up an expiring deal for the purpose of flipping for picks at the 2018 trade deadline. Nill might also be able to target a salary-floor team to pick up one of the goalie’s contracts, the way Arizona did with Pavel Datsyuk last June. That would free up money to then pursue Bishop in free agency.
Picture a 2017-18 Stars team free of several expensive veterans, armed with a young D-corps now boasting another year of experience, with a fully healthy Benn and a brand new No. 1 goaltender in Bishop, not to mention countless extra picks and prospects to throw around after acquiring them as a seller at the 2017 deadline. That could make Dallas a real contender next fall. Getting to that point requires a white-flag approach for the rest of 2016-17, however. If the Stars keep struggling into February, Nill should strongly consider it. He acknowledges that route is a possibility, especially with all his UFAs. It’s too early to quit on the year, though.
“We’re still on the playoff bubble,” he said. “If we win four or five in a row, we’re right in the thick of it again. The next three weeks will determine a lot.”
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to thn.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin
MORE FROM THE HOCKEY NEWS: