When Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill traded for, and then soon after signed, veteran goaltender Antti Niemi this summer, it was a loud and clear message that the team’s goaltending was simply not good enough last season.
With the Stars’ usually reliable number one goalie Kari Lehtonen slumping to the worst season of his career in terms of save percentage (.903), and new backup Anders Lindback failing badly to find any success in Dallas (posting an .875 save percentage before being shipped to the Buffalo Sabres right before the trade deadline), the team finished the year ranked 29th in total save percentage at an atrocious rate of .895.
In a striking contrast, the Stars finished second in the NHL in terms of goals scored, so it was plain as day that goaltending that the main culprit that caused the team to fall short of expectations and miss the playoffs.
“We explored every option with our goaltending, and we knew we had to make some changes,” Nill said bluntly about the Niemi deal.
And make changes he did. With a very interesting batch of goaltenders on the market – Robin Lehner, Cam Talbot, Eddie Lack, Martin Jones and others – the Stars went out and grabbed Niemi, who could be argued to be the best among the group. Even though he’s 31 years of age, his six years of experience as a number one goalie well eclipse that of anyone else that was on the market, and he is the only one to backstop a team to a Stanley Cup, winning it all with the Hawks back in 2010.
Not bad for a guy who is now a “backup goaltender,” right?
That’s where this whole scenario starts to get interesting. With the addition of Niemi the Stars now have two goaltenders on their roster that are capable of shouldering the load as the team’s number one. The question then becomes, who gets to play more?
Knowing this question would come up immediately, Nill elaborated on his plans the very day of the signing.
“One guy is going to start the first game and then we are just going to play it by ear from there. They are both going to play lots of games,” he said. “There is going to be lots of opportunity for both of them. It’s not like one guy is playing 60 and one guy is playing 20. It is going to work itself out. You know in this game there are lots of injuries, things happen. We just know we have now taken care of that one position we were worried about. We were one injury away from being in trouble, and now we are very comfortable whichever way we go. We have two guys that can do the job and they are both comfortable with that situation.”
Stars owner Tom Gaglardi echoed that same mentality in a recent interview with the team’s official website.
“Kari [Lehtonen] had an off year, and while we don’t think that will happen again, our backups haven’t been good enough since I have been here. So, we discussed the 1A/1B view because there are so few backups now. I think it is pretty hard on Kari when we give him a night off, and we never win. We knew we had to get deeper in goal, the 1A/1B thing, and that’s why we went after Niemi. He was at the top of our list along with another guy. We got our first choice.”
Sounds simple enough. In a “1A/1B” system both goalies take turns starting, ensuring that both are primarily healthy and rested, which allows them to play at higher individual levels.
The problem, however, is that this approach is predicated on one key assumption: that both goalies will play equally well.
Sure, if both netminders are playing at an equal level then it makes perfect sense to rotate them. But how likely is it that things will actually shake out that way?
Just looking at how the two compared head-to-head last season it wasn’t even close, with Niemi posting notably better numbers. Erin Bolen of Defending Big D showcased this quite nicely in a recent article.
If the same trend continues next season, with Niemi clearly outplaying Lehtonen, how long will it make sense to have the goalies split starts 50-50 before changing over to 60-40, or even 70-30?
The other main aspect to consider is that of playoff experience. As mentioned above, Niemi already has a Stanley Cup ring from his time in Chicago, and has also put up better career postseason numbers than Lehtonen. Through 62 career NHL playoff games Niemi has a .907 save percentage. Lehtonen in comparison? Only eight games total, and a save percentage of a troubling .874. Even if both goalies play neck-and-neck in the regular season, does it make sense to continue the experiment into the playoffs when Niemi has such a better track record?
The Stars’ goaltending situation is undoubtedly going to be one of the team’s most interesting storylines to follow next season, but don’t be surprised if it turns out to be because Niemi eventually took sole ownership of the number one job.