The Dallas Stars only made one move on Friday, but it was a big one. General manager Jim Nill signed Anton Khudobin to a three-year contract on Friday morning to successfully round out the Stars’ crease for the 2020-21 season and beyond.
The “win it all” mindset has guided the 34-year-old goaltender for most of his career and specifically in each of his past two stops in the Free Agent market. It’s also a prime reason as to why he’s ended up signing with the Stars on both occasions.
“Plus, they have a really good chance to win, which is really important for me,” Khudobin said on July 1, 2018 after signing a two-year contract with Dallas. “I’m not looking for a lot of money or whatever. I’m looking to win.”
When he signed a three-year contract worth $10 million ($3.33 million AAV) to return to the Stars on Friday morning after briefly exploring other options in free agency, the mindset once again held true.
“I told (my agent Kent Hughes) if we’re not going to seal the deal in Dallas, he knew where I wanted to go,” Khudobin said on Friday afternoon. “I didn’t want to go just for money or years. I wanted to go to a team that had a chance to win. That’s it. This signing here means we still have a chance.”
It certainly looks that way. After running through the Western Conference gauntlet in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs during their 66-day stay in the Edmonton bubble, the Stars seem to be as well-positioned as any team to make a run at the Cup next season. And to have Khudobin, who led the charge through the postseason with 24 starts and 25 games played, back in the crease alongside Ben Bishop only heightens the expectations moving forward.
“I’m really happy,” Khudobin said about the new contract. “Everybody knew that I wanted to stay here.”
Khudobin is coming off of the most productive season of his 11-year NHL career that included a 16-8-4 regular season record, the highest save percentage (.930) among NHL goaltenders in the regular season, and a 14-10 record with a .917 save percentage and 2.69 goals-against average that helped push the Stars farther than they had been in 20 years as they reached Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final.
“It was really great, to be honest. It’s just under my belt. I had really good fun, to be honest. Playoffs is a little bit different atmosphere, but it’s even more interesting. It’s kind of like you go and play and it’s do-or-die. It was really good and it was a fun run. It was a different situation of course being in the bubble. Little bit of a different world right now and stuff like that, but it was really good. I enjoyed it.” – Anton Khudobin on the 2020 postseason
But as the postseason wrapped up and the focus quickly shifted to the offseason, Khudobin became a pending UFA. After some negotiations earlier in the week, the goalie decided to table the Stars’ offer and peruse the free agent market. Stars general manager Jim Nill called Khudobin on Friday morning to reaffirm that the team wanted him back if he didn’t find the offer he wanted on the market.
And in the end, Khudobin decided that a three-year deal (which was an important part of the deal to the veteran goaltender) with the Dallas Stars was the best move for himself.
“I really wanted to get it done today,” Khudobin, who is going back home on Tuesday, said. “There was so much talk about it and there was too much information. Since this morning, there was a couple of talks and stuff like that. I really wanted to find out today, just forget about it, and be happy.”
As a result, the Stars will return one of the NHL’s best goaltending tandems over the past two seasons in Bishop and Khudobin for another run. A two-headed tandem will prove to be all the more valuable in what is expected to be a condensed 2020-21 season with a target start date of Jan. 1, 2021.
“In the last two years, our goaltending has been as good as anyone’s in the League,” Nill said. “We’ve been in the top three over the last two years. They’re quality guys, their teammates believe in them and like to play for them, they play for their teammates, and we’ve had a lot of success.”
Khudobin is coming off of a minor procedure on his arm on Wednesday to fix some numbness in his hand that first occurred in the second round and progressively got worse, specifically in two fingers. Both Nill and Khudobin said that the surgery was successful and that he should be good to go in around a month.
In his first two seasons with the Dallas Stars, Khudobin has put on an impressive showing. His .926 save percentage and 2.42 goals-against average are third and fifth respectively among NHL goalies with at least 50 games played. He’s not only been an insurance policy for Ben Bishop, but he’s proven to be a reliable starter at pivotal points in the regular season and even through an entire postseason run.
And now, the Stars will get three more years out of the duo, who are both now slated to be free agents in the summer of 2023.
“As an organization, we thought it was very important to do what we could do to keep this pair together,” Nill said. “We’re pretty fortunate to be in the NHL and have two number one goalies. They’ve proven that.
“To have success in this league, you have to have goaltending. When you don’t have it, you notice it right away. I’m very confident that we have one of the top tandems in the NHL.”
While the Khudobin signing helps further the “win now” motive surrounding the team after a successful 2019-20 campaign, it does bring up questions regarding the development of 21-year-old Jake Oettinger. The first-round pick in 2017 backed up Khudobin for most of the Stanley Cup Playoffs and, as of Thursday morning, seemed to be the Stars’ Plan B if they couldn’t get Khudobin re-signed.
Nill mentioned that he wants Oettinger to get as much playing time as he can in a starting role with the Texas Stars (AHL) as he continues to grow into the Stars’ goalie of the future. The hope is that Oettinger can continue to develop in the AHL, be ready for a potential call-up to the NHL should he be needed, and that the Stars can deal with their goaltending decisions on a year-by-year basis.
For now, however, the focus is set on Bishop and Khudobin holding the reins as the Stars try to navigate their way back to the Stanley Cup Final. The goalie duo currently sits as the ninth-highest total cap hit among NHL creases at $8,249,999, which is very reasonable when you consider their output.
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And now, the Stars’ cap space comes into the picture. With Khudobin signed, the Stars have seem to have their roster set for the 2020-21 season. The crease has two starting-caliber goalies, the defense is deep and loaded with veterans and returning starters, and the offensive core is still intact in addition to some younger forwards knocking on the door.
After factoring in the Khudobin contract, the Stars’ cap sits around $71,542,031. That leaves them with $9,957,969 to spend. Most of that will be spent signing Radek Faksa, Denis Gurianov, and Roope Hintz, who are all RFAs that were qualified by the Stars on Wednesday.
Nill mentioned that Faksa (who is eligible for arbitration) is the priority and that he has been speaking with the center’s representation over the past few days. He’s also been in contact with Hintz’s agent and Gurianov’s agent and is now focused on getting the three signed and fit under the cap.
“I’m very comfortable,” Nill said. “We’re in a good spot. We’re going to be tight up against it and we know that, but we have some flexibility. We think we have enough cap space and we have flexibility in two-way contracts.
“We like where we’re at, and that’s kind of how we planned this. We’ve been on top of this for the last three or four months, and we’re very comfortable with where we’re at with the cap situation.”
And with those contracts seemingly on the way, the Dallas Stars look to be in a good spot through one day of Free Agency. While it wasn’t a blockbuster day by any means, the Stars filled their void that needed filling with an in-house solution that has proven his immense value over the past two seasons.
Anton Khudobin is back in Dallas for three more years, and that’s good news for the crease and the franchise as a season with sky-high expectations sits on the horizon.