For much of the past decade, the Dallas Stars dealt with consistent struggles in the crease. But, after receiving a dominant push from their tandem in the 2018-19 season, it seems as though there may finally be hope for Dallas goaltending.
The Dallas Stars have only won the Jennings Trophy one time in the 25 years that the franchise has been in Texas.
That win came in the 1998-99 season when Ed Belfour and Roman Turek secured the trophy given annually to the goalie(s) that give up the least number of goals in each regular season. And, if you are familiar with your Stars history, you also know that the team won its only Stanley Cup in franchise history during the 1998-99 campaign.
Is there a correlation there? Well, the recent past would say yes. In three of the past six seasons, the goalie(s) that won the Jennings Trophy also went on to win the Stanley Cup.
Why is there a correlation? Well, because goaltending is not only a necessity, but also a key to being successful in today’s NHL.
But it’s not just a one-sided approach. Sure, a solid and consistent starter is needed for teams to stay competitive and have a chance to win on a nightly basis. On the other hand, a confident and quality backup is just as important because he can serve as a safety net in case the starter hits a skid or gets hampered by an injury. Without a strong backup, most teams struggle with taking the next step.
And for much of the past decade, the Dallas Stars couldn’t find a way to get both and get them clicking at the same time.
It all started with Kari Lehtonen. When the Stars traded for the goaltender in Feb. 2010 and made him the full-time starter in the following season, the hope was that Dallas had found the perfect replacement for Marty Turco. Lehtonen was only 27 at the time and had proven to be a reliable option in his first few NHL seasons with the Atlanta Thrashers.
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Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out that way. While Lehtonen was a solid starter for most of his seven years in the role, he rarely had a reliable backup to lean on. Names like Andrew Raycroft, Richard Bachman, Dan Ellis, Tim Thomas, and Anders Lindback filtered through the organization for short stints, but none of them ever stuck.
So GM Jim Nill took a stab at the “two starter” theory and signed Antti Niemi to a three-year contract. The experiment produced average results in its first season (2015-16) but collapsed entirely in 2016-17, and the Stars bought out Niemi as a result.
But then came Ben Bishop, and everything seemed to finally be in order with Bishop as the starter and Lehtonen as the backup. But when Bishop missed the final month of the 2017-18 regular season with an injury, Lehtonen proved unable to hold down the fort as the Stars plummeted from inside the playoff picture to several points outside due to an eight-game skid.
And so, Nill went back to the drawing board in the 2018 offseason in search of an answer to the team’s decade-long problem. His eventual answer? Anton Khudobin.
As the 2018-19 season opened up, no one knew quite what to think. Was Khudobin going to be another failed attempt at solving the backup puzzle? Would Bishop be able to stay healthy for a majority of the year in order to limit the pressure on Khudobin’s shoulders? Could this tandem actually work?
It didn’t take long to get an answer. And had it not been for an average final two weeks of the season in terms of goals against, the Dallas Stars may very well have secured their second Jennings Trophy in franchise history thanks to Bishop and Khudobin. Instead, they finished the year with the second-lowest goals against average in the league.
So, what was it that made this tandem so incredibly good after so many years of missing the mark? Simply put: they fed off of each other.
When Bishop was up, he was lights out. He finished the season with a record of 27-15-2 with a .934 save percentage (best in the NHL), 1.98 goals against average (best in the NHL), and seven shutouts (second-most in NHL). Those numbers were posted across 45 starts and helped earn Bishop a spot as a finalist for the Vezina Trophy.
But whenever Bishop suffered an injury or needed a day off on a back-to-back, Khudobin was there to carry the load. Khudobin finished the year with a mark of 16-17-5 as well as a .923 save percentage (sixth-best among NHL goaltenders with at least 35 games played) and 2.57 goals against average. In his case, however, the numbers only slightly aid in telling the story.
For much of the season, Khudobin had little to no goal support and was heavily relied on to keep the Stars afloat. And in many cases, he did. Some instances include stopping 31-32 against the Toronto Maple Leafs to help Dallas secure a 2-1 win though they were outshot 32-19, or scribbling his name all over the record books as he produced a 49-save shutout against the Nashville Predators just after Christmas.
The duo was on top of their game throughout the 2018-19 campaign, and it showed as the Stars pieced together an impressive playoff run that pushed them to Game 7 of the second round. And even though they lost, goaltending was at the front and center of their attack.
When you compare it to years past in the Dallas crease, it seems as though the Stars may finally have found the right combination.
In the 2016-17 season, Lehtonen and Niemi subbed in for one another on 13 different occasions due to the starter underperforming. This past season, Bishop and Khudobin were pulled from the game a combined three times due to lacking performance.
With the duo of Bishop and Khudobin in net, the Dallas Stars not only possessed one of the best tandems in the NHL in 2018-19; they also set the stage for a hopeful future in the crease. And after multiple years of waiting for that hope and reassurance to come around, there’s reason to believe that the 2019-20 season could provide an even more dominant showing from the Dallas net.
Goaltending is key, after all.