The Dallas Stars went big on goaltending experience during the 2015 NHL Draft, trading their 193rd pick in exchange for the former Sharks netminder. After suffering inconsistency in net, the Stars found an alternative to rotating inconsistent backup goalies. For the 2015-16 season, Stars General Manager, Jim Nill, is building a Finnish tandem featuring both Antti Niemi and Stars stand-by, Kari Lehtonen.
With Niemi’s addition, the goaltenders are pushed to both compete and cooperate, lessening Lehtonen’s heavy workload. Niemi also holds five years of playoff experience, including a 2010 Stanley Cup win in Chicago, that will benefit the Stars’ on their path to the post-season. Though both goalies are over 30, Niemi’s signing speaks volumes about the Stars’ current state in-net, and what the future holds for both Lehtonen and the Stars’ prospects moving forward.
Niemi Contract Places Trust in Goaltending
Coming off of a four-year, $15.2 million contract inked with the Sharks in 2011, Niemi agreed to terms with Dallas before entering unrestricted free agency. Niemi’s new terms include a three-year contract at $13.5 million, leaving Dallas with a $4.5 million annual cap hit.
With three years left on Lehtonen’s contract, the goalie tandem takes up $10.4 million of the maximum $71.4 million. A cap hit of this magnitude is an investment that shows Nill is serious about making a change in net, but not the one that fans anticipated at the regular season’s end. Niemi finished the 2014-15 regular season with a .914 save percentage and 2.59 goals against average; numbers that are only slightly better than Lehtonen’s stats.
For those who haven’t paid attention to the Sharks’ last line of defense, this video of Niemi stoning Corey Perry should ruffle a few Stars fans:
Nill Dedicated to Helping Lehtonen
When Lehtonen ended the 2014-15 regular season with a .903 save percentage and 2.93 goals against average, fans and critics called for his trade. Nill preached patience, however, trusting in the overworked goaltender who carried his team to the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in six seasons.
Following Niemi’s contract signing, Nill discussed the Stars’ goaltending future, explaining that Lehtonen played through injury in 2014-15.
“I know Kari has gone into a lot of games where he has been tired or has been injured and has had to play. We had no other choices. We had to win.” – Dallas Stars GM, Jim Nill
Like Lehtonen, Niemi was also overworked as a starting goaltender in the tough Western Conference. As free agency opens on July 1, Nill remains unlikely to make a big move on the goaltending front, instead splitting the season between the two seasoned goaltenders to increase reliability in-net.
Dressing an experienced goaltending tandem is a play that the Stars haven’t tried in recent years. While they’ve easily acquired low-cost, back-up netminders, rarely have these players stayed for more than one season. In five years, the Stars have cycled through nine back-up goalies. Some entered inexperienced, making their NHL debuts, while others remained persistent AHL contenders.
Now the Stars are trying a different approach that will hopefully lighten each goalie’s workload. Reducing the potential for injury while pushing the two former Olympians to play more competitively is Nill’s goal.
— SportsDayDFW (@SportsDayDFW) June 30, 2015
Stars Goalie Prospects to Receive Ample Ice Time
Introducing an experienced tandem is just one evolving facet within the Stars’ goaltending system. When the Stars named Jeff Reese their new goaltending coach this June, previous goalie coach, Mike Valley transitioned to the Director of Goaltending Development.
Additionally, the Stars re-signed Texas goalie, Jack Campbell, to a one-year, two-way contract worth $650,000. The 23 year-old goaltender was once the future of the Stars franchise. When Campbell suffered an injury that sidelined him in 2014, Cristopher Nilstorp lead Texas to a 2014 Calder Cup win instead. Campbell has since required development time to return to peak condition. A stint with the Idaho Steelheads of the ECHL helped Campbell return to Cedar Park revitalized, winning 11 of 14 games before making a postseason appearance in the first round of the playoffs.
At this time, Nill will need a backup for Campbell in the AHL with 2014 acquisitions, Jussi Rynnas, signed to Ak Bars Kazan of the KHL, and Jhonas Enroth entering free agency.
Despite his NHL debut ending in a loss, Campbell made a few stunning saves on Anaheim’s stars in 2013:
Philippe Desrosiers is another up-and-coming young goalie in the Stars’ system. Chosen 54th overall in the second round of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, Desrosiers shows promise. In 2015, Desrosiers backstopped Rimouski Oceanic to win the QMJHL Memorial Cup, finishing his 2014-15 season with a .901 save percentage and 2.50 goals against average in 44 games. Desrosiers has seen increasing success in each season with Oceanic, but will likely continue in the major junior league as a litmus test before making his professional debut in the ECHL or AHL later this season.
— Sean Shapiro (@seanshapiro) June 11, 2015
Goaltending is the Focus in 2015 Offseason
Defense was the name of the game during the 2014 draft and free agency, but defensive growth and lackluster goaltending in 2014-15 necessitated a new perspective. Niemi’s addition and partnership with Lehtonen increases Dallas’ goaltending depth, and lends playoff experience that benefits the maturing team. Learning from past acquisitions, Nill and company are diverging from a broken system. By investing in two starters, the Stars are breaking a pattern that relied on inexperienced, discount backups. While the changes in net don’t involve the big trade that Stars fans expected, the teams’ management proves that they’re willing to think beyond the status quo.