The Dallas Stars’ otherwise-successful season ended on a sour note last week. Just two nights after making an heroic stand in a must-win Game 6 against the St. Louis Blues, goalie Kari Lehtonen started Game 7 for the Stars. Though the statistics indicate he played 20 minutes, the “eye test” showed Lehtonen lasted just 17:39. At that point, St. Louis right wing Vladimir Tarasenko appeared to give the Blues a 2-0 lead:
Though the marker was disallowed, the Stars’ netminder appeared rattled; who wouldn’t be, after allowing such a terrible goal? Less than a minute after Tarasenko’s score came off the board, Paul Stastny’s top-shelf tally from in close went unchallenged, restoring the Blues’ 2-0 lead. A Patrik Berglund shot from distance with four seconds remaining in the period officially ended Lehtonen’s night. Only two goals counted, but the big Finn allowed three in just 2:17…in a must-win game.
Antti Niemi played the remainder of the game. Just 3:50 into his tenure as netminder-of-the-moment for Dallas, he allowed this coffin nail from Blues’ captain David Backes:
It was an ugly ending to a beautiful season. Stars head coach Lindy Ruff defended his two goalies afterward, saying, “We finished second overall. We had two goalies that won us 25 games [each]…we had two goalies that, I think, were the backbone of where we got to.” Ruff’s defense aside (and really, what else could he say?), the stark reality is that, in the biggest game of the Stars’ season, both goalies failed to answer the bell.
Where do the Stars go from here? How do they address the goalie situation this summer? General manager Jim Nill has several options.
Going Cheap: The Free Agents
The lowest-cost option for the Stars is to sign a free agent goalie. There is a catch, however: The reason this is the lowest-cost option is because there are no elite-level goalies in their prime available. If Nill goes the UFA route, it’s because he’s looking for a low-cost, reliable back-up netminder. Three such players could fit the bill:
James Reimer (TOR/SJS, 40 GP, 17-14-3, 3 SO, 2.31 GAA, .922 Sv pct., 2015-16 Cap hit: $2,300,000) – While Reimer struggled during the previous two seasons on some terrible Toronto teams, he rebounded nicely this season. Traded to San Jose at the deadline, Reimer posted three shutouts in eight starts with the Sharks. At age 28, he’s perhaps the best available UFA goalie in his prime. His 2015-16 performance, combined with his age, might make him the most expensive goalie on the market, however.
- Chad Johnson (BUF, 45 GP, 22-16-4, 1 SO, 2.36 GAA, .920 Sv pct., 2015-16 Cap hit: $1,300,000) – The 29-year-old career back-up took over the Buffalo net when starter Robin Lehner went down with an injury. Like Reimer, Johnson rebounded from a poor 2014-15 campaign with a solid performance this season. While he’s certainly earned a raise, the potential glut of goalies available via trade could keep his cap hit down to $2M or less.
- Al Montoya (FLA, 25 GP, 12-7-0, 2.18 GAA, .919 Sv pct., 2015-16 Cap hit: $1,050,000) – The “Big Cubano” bounced back from a disappointing 2014-15 season (are you sensing a trend here?), posting solid numbers in relief of Roberto Luongo. The native of Chicago is no stranger to the Dallas area, having played 15 games for the NAHL’s Texas Tornado back in 2000-01. At 31, Montoya is the oldest member of this group, but might also be the least expensive option.
The problem with the free agent route, of course, is that the Stars already have two goalies. Can they trade one, or would a buyout be necessary? If it’s the latter, the cost of the buyout must be factored in with the salary of the new netminder, as that’s effectively what the Stars would be paying for a free agent goalie. Per Cap Friendly, a buyout of Antti Niemi would cost Dallas $6M in real dollars, resulting in a cap hit of $1.5M over the next four years.
Intriguing but Expensive: The Trade Option
The Stars could obtain a better goalie via trade, though doing so could come at a much higher cost. What makes this option so intriguing is the looming threat of an expansion draft in the summer of 2017. If the NHL expands, the 30 existing teams will only be able to protect one goalie apiece (players with two or fewer years of professional experience will be exempt). Several teams could be in a bind, forced to choose between their current starting netminder and their designated “goalie of the future.”
The Stars are in a position to make that choice much easier for one of those clubs. For the sake of argument, let’s say any trade in which the Stars send a goalie the other way, that goalie would be Niemi and Dallas would retain half his salary ($2.25M per year), as Lehtonen’s cap hit ($5.9M) makes him almost impossible to move. Also, let’s assume Dallas is looking for a goalie who can play in the NHL now and slide comfortably into the starting role in a few years.
No, but it would help so this problem doesn’t happen five years from now. Need to fix now and future. https://t.co/IpwayT8vSS
— Mike Heika (@MikeHeika) May 15, 2016
Even with those limitations, the Stars have several attractive trade options:
Petr Mrazek (DET, 54 GP, 27-16-6, 4 SO, 2.33 GAA, .921 Sv pct., Cap hit: $737,500, arbitration-eligible RFA this summer) – If the 24-year-old Mrazek didn’t steal the starter’s role from Jimmy Howard during the regular season, he did so during the playoffs. The young Czech played the final three games of Detroit’s first round series against Tampa, blanking the Lightning in the first contest and allowing just four goals in the other two, including a 1-0 loss in the deciding game. The young goalie is well known to Jim Nill and his Director of amateur scouting, Joe McDonnell, as they drafted him back in 2010. Given Mrazek’s age, cap-friendly salary and proven ability, Detroit’s ask would probably start with a young defenseman and a top-nine forward, in addition to Niemi at half-price.
Louis Domingue (ARI, 39 GP, 15-18-5, 2 SO, 2.75 GAA, .912 Sv pct., Cap hit: $605,000, arbitration-eligible RFA this summer) – Stars fans should remember Louis Domingue; He’s the 24-year-old Arizona Coyotes goalie who stopped 37 of 38 shots in a 3-1 win over Dallas back in March. Yeah, that guy. He filled in as starter in Arizona when Mike Smith got hurt, and did an admirable job on a poor team. Domingue could be a capable, low-cost back-up for Lehtonen, and has room to grow. The Coyotes have more than enough cap room to take on Niemi’s full salary, and might be convinced to do so if the Stars sweeten the deal with a good, young forward or defenseman.
- Connor Hellebuyck (WPG, 26 GP, 13-11-1, 2 SO, 2.34 GAA, .918 Sv pct., Cap hit: $667,500 through 2016-17, then RFA) – The 22-year-old Michigan native saw his first NHL action this season in Winnipeg, and was impressive enough to earn a spot on Team North America in this September’s World Cup of Hockey. With Ondrej Pavelec, 28, under contract for another year and Michael Hutchinson, 26, an arbitration-eligible RFA this summer, Hellebuyck is currently third on Winnipeg’s depth chart. According to Hockey’s Future, Hellebuyck “…has the athleticism and physical attributes to be a successful starting goalie.” Two years learning from – and splitting time with – Kari Lehtonen could be a recipe for long-term success, for both the young goalie and the Stars. Trading with Winnipeg has two drawbacks, however. First, the Stars would have to send assets to a division rival, and second, the Jets already have two NHL goalies, so Dallas would have to find another home for Niemi.
Several other trade options exist, but these three could solidify the Stars’ crease “now and [in the] future,” as Mike Heika wrote, and do so at a reasonable cost.
Patience is a Virtue: The Do-Nothing Option
Give goaltending coach Jeff Reese another year to work with Niemi and Lehtonen; after all, he was hired a scant 11 months ago. If one goalie seizes the starting job next season, protect him and leave the other exposed in the expected June expansion draft. If neither takes over, Nill might get an even better deal on a starting goalie a year from now, when teams with two NHL-caliber netminders are truly desperate, and leave both Finns exposed.
As Lindy Ruff said, each goalie won 25 games. Combined, they helped the Stars to a second-round Game 7. Lehtonen, at least, has demonstrated elite talent at times, as in Game 6 against St. Louis. If he can find the consistency to match that talent, the Stars can make the leap from playoff team to Cup contender without acquiring another goalie. Given all Dallas has invested in the two-goalie “experiment,” allowing another year to see how it plays out might, just maybe, be the right move.