Dallas Stars Free Agency: Assessing Kari Lehtonen’s Situation

SAN JOSE, CA - APRIL 03: Kari Lehtonen #32 of the Dallas Stars looks on during the game against the San Jose Sharks at SAP Center on April 3, 2018 in San Jose, California. (Photo by Rocky W. Widner/NHL/Getty Images)
SAN JOSE, CA - APRIL 03: Kari Lehtonen #32 of the Dallas Stars looks on during the game against the San Jose Sharks at SAP Center on April 3, 2018 in San Jose, California. (Photo by Rocky W. Widner/NHL/Getty Images) /

It’s about time that we break down the situation of each unrestricted free agent on the Dallas Stars. First up, let’s take a look at Kari Lehtonen’s extensive stretch and how his past season could affect his future.

The Dallas Stars have some difficult decisions to make over the next month.

As it goes with every offseason, all 31 NHL teams face a plethora of decisions. The period for making each decision could last one or two days or could take months to mull over. But each decision just might play a critical role in the team’s chances at future success.

They can range from draft day moves to trade acquisitions. But they also involve free agents, both on the team and on the market.

In the 2018 offseason, the Stars have an interesting free agent class to deal with. They have a hefty stock of restricted free agents that either need to be qualified or signed to longer-term deals. But on top of that, they have a few unrestricted free agents that all bring difficult debates with them.

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Here at Blackout Dallas, we thought it would be a good idea to break down the situation of each of those unrestricted free agents. While the organization has 11 unrestricted free agents to contemplate, we are going to focus solely on the ones that played at least one game with the Dallas Stars this season. That narrows the list down to six players.

The funny thing about this class of UFAs is that all six players have a serious argument to both stay and go. There is a respectable reason for Dallas to keep each player, but there is also a good reason to release them to free agency and move on.

And that’s why GM Jim Nill‘s job will be quite the challenge this summer. If he lets a player go, he needs to be prepared to find a replacement, whether in house or on the market. And if he re-signs a player, he has to maneuver around the cap and make the deal feasible for the team. On top of that, he also has to be sure that the player is ready and able to fill the role that needs filling.

The six UFAs in discussion are Kari Lehtonen, Dan Hamhuis, Greg Pateryn, Antoine Roussel, Mike McKenna, and Curtis McKenzie. We will take time to look over each one and assess their case entirely over the next few weeks.

First up, we will look at longtime Stars goaltender Kari Lehtonen.

History With The Team

If you became a Dallas Stars fan at any point over the past nine seasons, Kari Lehtonen has been your goaltender. As the second-longest tenured Star on the roster at the moment, he’s just about seen it all.

He saw the team fall from grace after the 2008 run to the Western Conference Final, embraced the dark years of Dallas hockey, helped welcome in a new era with Jim Nill as general manager, and watched the Stars grow into the up-and-down but exciting hockey team that they are now.

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  • And for a large majority of it, Lehtonen served as the primary starter in the crease. From the 2010-11 season through the 2016-17 season, the Big Finn started in 382 of the Stars’ 540 regular season contests. That’s close to 71 percent. He also played in 65+ games on three separate occasions. In other words, he was one of the only backbones for Dallas.

    As the front office struggled to find a competent backup to help carry the load, Lehtonen was worked extensively. And for much of his time, he served valiantly. In four of those seven seasons, Lehtonen posted a save percentage of .914 or higher. The only problem is that those four seasons were the first four. In the last few seasons, things have been different.

    From 2014-2017, Lehtonen couldn’t seem to keep up with his hot performances. Sometimes the team bailed him out (like in 2015-16), but other times, they didn’t. It simply looked as though the Big Finn had finally run out of gas.

    So, to lighten the load but give Lehtonen a chance to shine, the Stars moved him to the backup role for the 2017-18 season.

    2017-18 Season Recap

    When the Dallas Stars traded for Ben Bishop in May 2017, the writing was on the wall: Lehtonen’s starting days were over. After carrying the club for seven years but sitting at the age of 33, it was only right to bring in an elite talent that could carry Dallas back into the playoff conversation.

    Lehtonen played out the last year of his five-year extension that he signed in 2012 this past season. And for a large part of it, he played well.

    The Big Finn thrived in the backup position through the first 60 games of the year. At one point, he was 11-5-1 with a .923 save percentage along with one shutout and only 39 goals allowed on the season. Lehtonen looked like an ideal safety net for the Stars and performed greatly whenever called upon to help a struggling Bishop.

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    But unfortunately for Lehtonen, he was put in a tight spot. With one month to go in the season, Bishop went out with an injury and Lehtonen was called upon to be the no. 1 in his absence.

    That didn’t mull over so well. Along with the Stars’ horrifying performance in March, Lehtonen finished the season on a 4-8-2 skid with a .904 save percentage and allowed 40 goals over the span. Those numbers aren’t entirely disastrous, but with the entire Dallas team struggling around him, they weren’t enough to carry the load.

    When it was all said and done, Lehtonen finished with a 15-14-3 record along with a .912 save percentage and 2.56 goals against average. It was his best season statistically since 2013-14, but ended in the worst possible way in a contract year as the Stars missed the playoffs for the seventh time in his nine-year career with the club.

    Contract Situation

    Kari Lehtonen is 34 years old right now and will be 35 in November. His most recent contract was a five-year deal with a cap hit and AAV of $5.9 million. He’s the ninth highest-paid goaltender in the NHL at that rate. Lehtonen also has a modified no-trade clause in effect for the final year of this contract.

    He is the Dallas Stars’ most expensive UFA and was the fourth highest-paid player on the team this season (behind Jamie Benn, Jason Spezza, and Alexander Radulov). Even their starter Bishop is a cheaper option.

    A Realistic Asking Price

    If we’re being hopeful and optimistic, we say that Lehtonen is still capable of putting up good numbers on a consistent basis and could still demand decent money on the market.

    But the sad reality is that Lehtonen is almost 35. His prime years are done and he is still around in hopes of one last shot at a Stanley Cup before calling it quits. Goaltenders don’t have the same shelf life that skaters do, and that’s another factor in it all.

    At this point, a fair estimate for Lehtonen’s next contract would be a one or two-year deal worth around $2-$2.5 million.

    To compare, Ryan Miller signed a two-year deal with the Anaheim Ducks last summer to serve as their backup. He was 37 at the time and signed for a cap hit of $2 million per year.

    Pros To Re-signing Him

    The main reason the Dallas Stars might consider bringing Lehtonen back is because they know what they are getting.

    Sure, he’s an aging goalie and his reliability isn’t consistent anymore. But Dallas has a dedicated goaltender that will definitely return to the team.

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  • “This is home,” Lehtonen said following his win in the final home game of the season. “And this is going to be my family’s home after I’m done playing, too. It’s a big part of our lives and it’s an awesome place.”

    On top of that, the Stars could also secure him at a cheap rate. He may even be the cheapest option on the market, especially considering his ties to Dallas. Lehtonen proved this past season that he can still play the backup role rather well as long as it’s on a semi-consistent basis.

    In addition, the Dallas Stars have plenty of young goaltending prospects (like Jake Oettinger and Colton Point) in the pipeline that could be ready for NHL play within the next 2-4 years. Instead of signing a goalie entering his prime that wants to contend for the starting spot to play the backup role and further clogging the system, signing Lehtonen would be an assured bet to help on a short-term basis and depart at the right time to bring in young talent.

    Cons To Re-signing Him

    Let’s face it: Lehtonen isn’t the same goaltender he used to be. He isn’t to blame for all of the Stars’ struggles in the past few seasons, but he hasn’t been the goaltender that Dallas needed him to be in big moments (like the 2014 and 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs).

    In addition, Lehtonen showed that he cannot be a starter anymore with his performance in the tail end of this past season.

    So say Ben Bishop goes out with another injury next season that sidelines him for a month? Is Lehtonen going to be able to carry the load for the team and keep them in the race? It didn’t look like he could this past year (even though, as we’ve stated before, it wasn’t all on him).

    There are younger options on the market that are just now entering their prime and could play both backup and starter whenever needed. They would likely sign at affordable rates and give Dallas more certainty in the crease.

    The Bottom Line

    Kari Lehtonen has served as a backbone for the Dallas Stars over the past decade. And if you aren’t on the side that solely blames him for the team’s shortcomings over that time, it’s likely that you’ve developed a soft spot for the Big Finn. He’s become a Stars veteran and led the team through ups and downs.

    But is his late season meltdown from this past season enough to close the doors? He’s an aging veteran and the Dallas Stars are in a critical spot right now. They need to have their roster perfectly aligned going into next season because there’s no more time to waste with the talent they currently possess.

    Signing Lehtonen might seem like a feasible idea, but it might end up being a heavy gamble depending on how the season pans out.

    At the moment, it doesn’t seem as though the Big Finn is in the Stars’ plans for 2018-19. If that’s the case, where will he go? Which team will take the gamble and pick him up? That is anyone’s guess.

    Next: Ranking The Best Stars Games Of 2017-18: Nos. 25-21

    We’ll have to wait and see in 26 days when the free agency market opens.