The Stars and coach Lindy Ruff will no doubt continue playing the shell game when asked, but the elephants in the room blocked the door to the penthouse and everyone knows it. I have no doubt Stars General Manager Jim Nill is researching potential solutions. Remember, it’s early, Nill typically works his magic in July. The challenge is Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi combine for a $10M salary cap hit. By comparison the St. Louis Blues goalies combine for less than $5M. Therefore, it’s not as simple as trading either of the Stars goalies. Not to mention both Lehtonen and Niemi will be 33 years old by Christmas.
Don’t expect help via the unrestricted free agent market either. The biggest name goalies available will be Carolina’s Cam Ward and San Jose’s James Reimer. Ward is 32 years old. He has a Cup on his resume but it was ten years ago. Reimer failed to take advantage of multiple opportunities to win the starting job in Toronto. The Leafs traded him to San Jose this season where he has a great seat to watch Martin Jones play.
How about an internal solution? It’s a great idea, unfortunately none of their prospects are close to being NHL ready.
Lehtonen and Niemi were particularly bad at stopping high danger shots in the playoffs. Per war-on-ice high-percentage shots are defined by the blue areas in the graphic below, which were found empirically to have the highest Fenwick shooting percentages (above 10% at even strength).
Stars Playoffs HD Save Percentage & 10 Prior Cup Winners
I compared the high danger save percentages of Lehtonen and Niemi in the 2016 playoffs with the last 10 goalies to win the Cup. A couple of obvious things stood out. 1- All the Cup winning goalies faced more high danger scoring chances. 2- Lehtonen and Niemi had worse high danger save percentages than any of the goalies with the exception of two backup goalies who played sparingly (less than 165 minutes each).
The Stars being knocked out in the second round accounts for the discrepancy in shots. However, if you project the high danger shots for a full Cup run the total wouldn’t be much different from what Chicago and Los Angeles faced the past two Cup runs. That surprised me a bit.
Another interesting nugget. In 2008, a 42-year-old Dominick Hasek had a better high danger save percentage than Lehtonen or Niemi. Hasek did backup Chris Osgood during that run. Lastly, notice Niemi’s impressive 2010 playoffs with Chicago. Perhaps father time caught up with him this year.
All stats referenced below are 5×5 situations in the playoffs.
Niemi 9 goals 18 saves (2nd worst in 2016 playoffs) 66.67
Lehtonen 12 goals 40 saves (5th worst in 2016 playoffs) 76.92
What About the Stars Great Regular Season Run?
Let’s not forget Lehtonen and Niemi had 25 wins each during the regular season. Therefore, was this a playoff meltdown or something that plagued the Stars all season. Let’s take a closer look. Out of 26 goalies with 1800+ minutes played Niemi was actually 10th with a 84.93 high danger save percentage and Lehtonen was 25th with 79.84.
Niemi had a fantastic start to the season and faded down the stretch. Knowing that, I decided to look at their numbers from January 1st 2016 to the end of the regular season. Out of 33 goalies who played 900+ minutes Niemi fell to 28th with an 81.81 high danger save percentage. Even more alarming, and a bit surprising given his strong results at the end of the season, Lehtonen was 33rd with a dreadful 75.18.
While the regular season numbers were poor, it’s important to note, of teams who qualified for the playoffs, the Stars gave up the most high danger scoring chances. Lehtonen and Niemi combined for 450 high danger saves. Then again, it shouldn’t have been a big surprise in the playoffs. Or maybe the 32 year olds ran out of gas.
Since they aren’t getting any younger, I can’t imagine Nill keeping both goalies next season. We still have a month and half or so, but if you are an NHL General Manager with a quality goalie or two before sure to have your cell phone close by during the month of July. Jim Nill might be calling.