Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill made quite a few bold moves to better his club this offseason, leaving writers and fans alike envisioning a return to the postseason for the men in Victory Green. He took advantage of the salary-dumping Blackhawks for Patrick Sharp and Stephen Johns, signed free agent defenseman Johnny Oduya, and took another Russian forward in the first round two drafts after selecting potential 2015-16 breakout candidate Valeri Nichushkin.
Out of all of them, perhaps the boldest was his expensive investment in the team’s newest netminder, Stanley Cup champion Antti Niemi. Niemi was set to become a free agent, but Nill acquired his rights from the Sharks for a 2015 draft pick. Nill then signed the veteran to a three-year, $4.5 million dollar deal to come into training camp as essentially the “1B” goaltender. He’ll be expected to compete with starter Kari Lehtonen for playing time, allowing each to relieve the other in back-to-back scenarios and giving Lindy Ruff the ability to have confidence in going with the hot hand.
Two-Man System Could Have Success in 2015-16
It’s a move that could pay dividends immediately. Nill improved the defense and, while it’s far from perfect, it should provide whoever is tending the twine for the Stars a little bit more protection. Separate, capable starters in back-to-back games should benefit both the goalies and the club, as the Stars have struggled mightily in recent years when asked to take the ice two nights in a row. Niemi had good numbers last season (31-23-7 with a .914 save percentage), and the hope is that Lehtonen will rebound after a season in which he underperformed.
On paper, this fix should work for the Stars in the short term. However, to quote Nill himself, the Stars are approaching a “five or six-year window” in which they feel they have a chance to contend for a championship. Even if both goalies perform to the best of their ability and neither needs to be replaced due to injury, poor performance, or monetary concerns, they’re each only locked up for three more years of that time frame.
That’s the best-case scenario. Lehtonen is scheduled to make $5.9 million through 2017-18 in addition to Niemi’s $4.5 million, so it stands to reason that one will have to be moved sometime before those contracts expire. Jamie Benn’s deal runs out before the 2017-18 season and Tyler Seguin’s comes off the books before 2019-20, and both of them will demand big paydays. In addition, Nichushkin, Brett Ritchie, and Cody Eakin all reach RFA status after this year, and Klingberg signed an extension that will see him paid $4.25 million through 2021-22. In short, it’s not a huge stretch to assume the Stars could quickly find themselves willing to purge themselves of one of either Lehtonen or Niemi’s big contracts.
What if it all goes wrong?
Let’s assume the worst happens. In this scenario, neither Lehtonen nor Niemi meet expectations this season, and one is shipped out while the other is left to attempt to earn his way back into the organization’s good graces. The Stars, for all the talk of the two-headed goalie monster, are left scrambling in their attempt to find a reliable backstop for what otherwise could be a serious power in the West. Who steps in to fill the void?
Nill could make a move for one of the 26 goalies scheduled to hit free agency in 2016 or make a trade, but, for the purposes of this article, let’s assume that the Stars are forced to make a decision internally. One name immediately comes to mind: Jack Campbell.
Campbell, who turned 23 in January, is clinging to his last chance. He’s fallen short of expectations in his professional career since being taken 11th overall in 2010, and he’ll hit restricted free agency in 2016. He split time with the Idaho Steelheads of the ECHL (his only ever stint in the pre-AHL league) and the Texas Stars last year, posting a 5-2 record with Idaho and a 14-14-5 record with Texas. After playing 40 games for Texas in 2012-13 and recording a .905 save percentage, he’s been bitten by the injury bug the last two seasons and has missed significant time. His play has been inconsistent since a strong 16 games in 2013-14, evidenced by his backup role and short-lived demotion to Idaho.
For all that, there’s still hope. He finished last year by going 11-3-0 with a .924 save percentage, and his time in Idaho seems to have helped him find his game. With Jussi Rynnas departing and no big prospects left in Texas to oppose Campbell, Nill is expecting him to grab the starting spot in the AHL and hold on to it. If the 23-year-old can finally begin cashing in on his potential, he could find himself with a role to play on the big club in the near future. Campbell himself seems to think that his relaxed and patient approach will pay off, and the Stars still believe he may be right.
However, what if he continues to falter? In a prospect pool that lacks high-potential netminders with a chance to make an impact within three years, there is really only one more option if Campbell can’t cut it: Philippe Desrosiers.
Desrosiers, a second-round pick in 2013, has done nothing but shine in his junior hockey career. He was named the CHL’s Goalie of the Year in 2014-15, going 29-9-3 in the regular season and 5-3 in the playoffs for Rimouski Oceanic of the QMJHL. He amassed 82 regular-season wins in three years as Rimouski’s starter, and his goals against average was a solid 2.50 in 2014-15.
Desrosiers seems to have the confidence and poise it takes to compete as a professional, and he’ll be making the jump in 2015-16. It will become more clear after training camp whether he will begin the year in Idaho or as Campbell’s backup, but he’s shown no signs of being unable to handle either task. However, the professional game is another world, and Desrosiers won’t even make it out of his teens until August.
The problem with these scenarios is that, if both goalies end up as even middling NHL players, there really isn’t anywhere else for Nill and the Stars to turn to inside the organization. Prospect Brent Moran may have potential, but he’s a long way away from NHL relevancy, if he ever makes it.
In Worst-Case Scenario, Nill May be Forced to Deal Again in 2016
For all the seemingly brilliant moves Nill made this offseason, the one with the most riding on it is undoubtedly his decision to create a Finnish tandem in net. He’s essentially banking on either Lehtonen or Niemi producing at a high level for the remainder of their contract, as neither Campbell nor Desrosiers is a sure thing. Even if the two-man system works for this season, Dallas may be left in a situation where they have to dump one veteran or the other due to salary concerns within a year or two.
The bottom line is that, while the Stars have improved on paper in all aspects of the game, their situation at goaltender is far from shored-up. Unless Lehtonen or Niemi can prove that they’re capable of a holding down a singular starting role in the NHL or Campbell or Desrosiers becomes NHL starter-ready, Nill may have some more work to do a year from now. However, with his track record, maybe that’s something that Stars fans should be comfortable with by now.