Whether the Dallas Stars are playoff bound or not this year, one thing is for sure: some major changes will be required in the offseason. One of those changes needs to be in the goaltending department.
Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi. The two-headed Finnish monster. Since October 8, 2015, these two goaltenders have run the crease for the Dallas Stars. Not one other goalie has started in Victory Green since then.
Over the past two seasons, the results have been rather mediocre. Lehtonen has a combined record of 38-28-8 with a .904 save percentage and 2.82 goals against average over the two seasons. Niemi has a 35-22-11 record with a .903 save percentage and 2.83 goals against average.
While those statistics aren’t the worst that Dallas has seen from their crease over the past few years, they could be better. After all, there are a number of backup goaltenders in the NHL who have a better stat line over the past two seasons.
The experiment was put into place by general manager Jim Nill in June 2015 when he traded a seventh round pick to the San Jose Sharks in exchange for Niemi. The move was supposed to stabilize the Stars’ crease, which had not featured two established and solidified goaltenders since the days of Marty Turco and Kari Lehtonen back in 2010.
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Now that they are two years in, it’s clear that while this plan was a step up from the rubble that Dallas was once in, it is not a definitive or long-term fix. The Stars are still in need of a solid structure in the crease that can lead them through a postseason for years to come. Many other teams have it, so why can’t Dallas?
That being said, something needs to be done soon.
As of Wednesday morning, the Dallas Stars sit eight points out of the final wild card spot in the Western Conference. That’s a rather sizable gap for an inconsistent team to close with just 22 games remaining in the season. Their record of 23-27-10 is a simple testament to the struggles that they have faced this season when it comes to consistency and trying to mirror last season’s successes.
So what’s next for the Stars? Their bye week ends in two days and they will be back in action on Friday night against the Arizona Coyotes. By then, they could potentially be ten points out of the final playoff spot in the West. Are playoff chances more of a dream than anything else at this point?
If yes, then it’s likely time for Dallas to sell, and that all starts with the trade deadline on March 1. The Stars could get an early jump on selling away some prime assets and picking up prospects or draft picks with promising futures.
But what if the Stars went a different route? What if instead of selling Patrick Sharp to the Anaheim Ducks for a prospect defenseman and second round pick, they traded him and a second round pick to the Minnesota Wild for Darcy Kuemper?
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“Wait a second. Hold the phone. You mean that backup goaltender for the Minnesota Wild that always seems to thwart the Stars?” Why yes, that is exactly who I am referring to.
The beautiful thing about the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft is that every team who is currently safe and secure with a seemingly flawless lineup is going to have to adjust. The restrictions and guidelines that each team is required to follow will leave each and every one vulnerable in a certain way. That is, unless they act before the day of the draft.
The biggest problem that these “well-rounded” teams will encounter is the fact that they can only protect one of their goaltenders. No matter which scenario they pick, one goalie will have to be exposed in the draft, giving Vegas a total of at least 30 NHL-ready goalies to choose from.
Considering Vegas can select three goalies, there is only a ten percent chance that a team would lose their goaltender, which seems harmless. But the fact of the matter is that no NHL team will know what the other teams are planning on doing and will have no idea whether their sacrificed goaltender will be one of the stronger ones in the pool. It will be a simple roll of the dice, and that is bound to worry some teams.
For the Stars, they have nothing to worry about. It is extremely unlikely that the new Vegas franchise will want a goaltender in his mid-30’s with little playoff experience over the past few years that is also declining in reliability. There will simply be too many better options on the block.
But for other teams, this spells trouble. They could see one of their two prized goaltenders disappear for literally nothing in return. So why wouldn’t they try and sell said goalie before the draft and at least get something in return from another team? That’s where the Stars come in.
In this situation, some of the teams who might be feeling the threat are the Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota Wild, Chicago Blackhawks, Pittsburgh Penguins, Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals, and New York Rangers. They may be some others, but these teams are the few in the NHL that currently have two established and starting-caliber goaltenders in their arsenal.
That means that each one of these teams will have to offer up one of their goalies with the possibility of said goalie being snatched away to Sin City with zero return.
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The possibility of that happening must be absolutely devastating for some of those teams. But the Dallas Stars could come to the rescue.
It’s highly unlikely that either of the Stars’ two goalies will be wanted through trade, and that would lead Dallas to needing to buy one out over the summer, which they could realistically do considering each goalie is nearing the end of his current contract.
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If the Stars were to go in on a goaltender in hopes of improving the crease through trade, they will need to examine each situation very carefully. For example, going for Marc Andre Fleury or Ben Bishop probably shouldn’t be the number-one option.
Fleury is suffering one of the worst seasons of his career since his rookie year and is pushing 33 years old. He probably wouldn’t be a big enough step up from Lehtonen or Niemi. And while Bishop is still playing a strong style of game in Tampa, he is highly injury-prone and will likely be asking for a big-time new contract this offseason. Is he really worth the risk?
That leaves a couple of options for Dallas. If the Kings protect Jonathan Quick, that leaves Peter Budaj out in the open. If Minnesota holds on to Devan Dubnyk, then Darcy Kuemper would be up for grabs. The Caps will protect Braden Holtby, which means that Philipp Grubauer will be available. The Rangers might also stick with Henrik Lundqvist, which would leave Antti Raanta could be in trade talks. Scott Darling will also be a free agent in the upcoming offseason.
These are all current backup goaltenders who have proven that they have what it takes to be a full-time starter through their consistent play. They are all young and could easily be transformed into franchise goaltenders. That leaves the Stars with an excellent opportunity, but they must act quickly and wisely.
Picking up one of these goaltenders would not only give the Dallas Stars a young, fresh face to take on the crease, but would also leave them still with either Niemi or Lehtonen to help add in some extra experience. Remember, this team is only one or two players away from being back in contention for the Cup.
The Stars also have plenty of assets to use in the trade market. Patrik Nemeth, Jamie Oleksiak, Patrick Sharp, Johnny Oduya, Jiri Hudler, and even Patrick Eaves if necessary could be used to win over a trade partner in exchange for a goalie.
Considering that all of these teams are currently in talks to make a run at the Stanley Cup, the possibility of any of them trading one of the goalies in their one-two punch before the playoffs is highly unlikely. But that doesn’t mean Dallas can’t sit back and watch, all while keeping in close contact with a team. Then by the time the playoffs end and just before the expansion draft begins, a deal could be struck.
The Dallas Stars have searched desperately for a crease they can trust for years now. It’s time to make that change, and they have a beautiful opportunity presented in front of them. Something tells me that Jim Nill is already scouting around, looking for the right deal. The question is whether he’s going to find it in time.