The Stars can’t continue on with Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi between the pipes. Here’s how they might be able to fix things, and who they should target.
After finishing atop the Western Conference standings in 2015-16, the Dallas Stars are on the verge of missing the playoffs for the seventh time in nine seasons. Goaltending has been a significant problem for the Stars in 2016-17. The combined 3.24 goals-against of Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi sits behind only the league-worst 3.25 of the woeful Colorado Avalanche.
The Dallas Morning News‘ Mike Heika reviewed the Stars’ goaltending in a recent mailbag segment. While Lehtonen and Niemi are both under contract through 2017-18, Heika doubts the tandem remains intact after this season.
Lehtonen, 33, carries a $5.9-million salary-cap hit with a modified no-trade clause. Niemi, also 33, has a $4.5-million cap hit. He carries a full no-trade but it changes to modified on July 1.
It’s obvious the Stars cannot carry on with their current goalie duo next season. Whether GM Jim Nill replaces Lehtonen, Niemi or both remains to be seen, but a significant change is in order.
Given their poor numbers over the last two seasons, it’s unlikely Lehtonen or Niemi will attract much interest via the trade market. It’s doubful the Vegas Golden Knights will take either guy in the expansion draft.
One or both could be bought out in late-June. Heika estimated a buyout for Lehtonen could cost around $1.9-million annually over the next two seasons while Niemi’s would be $1.5 million. Buying out both would leave the Stars carrying a combined $3.4 million in dead cap space through 2018-19.
Heika also explored possible off-season replacements. The expansion draft could force the New York Rangers to part with Antti Raanta, while the Washington Capitals could expose Philipp Grubauer. Rather than lose either guy to the draft, those clubs might be willing to trade them for a draft pick or prospect.
Goalies who could be available via free agency include Ben Bishop of the Los Angeles Kings, Brian Elliott of the Calgary Flames, Ryan Miller of the Vancouver Canucks, Steve Mason of the Philadelphia Flyers and Peter Budaj of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Heika also suggested Chicago Blackhawks backup Scott Darling as an option.
Darling, 28, could be ready to become a full-time starting goalie after three seasons as Corey Crawford’s understudy in Chicago. He’ll be more affordable than most of the other notable UFAs. His lack of NHL starter experience, however, could make him a bit of a gamble.
Nill, though, might prefer someone with more experience. Bishop is the best of the free-agent bunch and sure to be the most expensive. Completing a two-year deal with a $5.95-million cap hit, the 30-year-old could command up to $7-million annually on a five-year deal. His recent injury history could also be a concern.
The Stars carry over $51 million invested in 15 players for 2016-17, with aging veterans Patrick Sharp, Ales Hemsky and Jiri Hudler eligible for UFA status. They can afford a big investment on someone such as Bishop, but time will tell if Nill wants to go that route.
FRANCIS MAY LOOK TO SHAKE UP HURRICANES
For the eight straight year, the Carolina Hurricanes are poised to miss the playoffs. While GM Ron Francis has preached patience with his rebuilding roster, he could attempt to shake things up this summer.
Francis made a couple of moves leading up to the trade deadline. He shipped defenseman Ron Hainsey to Pittsburgh for a second-round pick in this year’s draft and minor league forward Danny Kristo. He also dealt forward Viktor Stalberg to Ottawa for a third rounder.
Bigger moves could come in the off-season. On March 1, Chip Alexander of the Raleigh News & Observer reported Francis saying he could use some of his extra draft picks, and perhaps some prospects, to address some roster needs this summer.
Their biggest need is finding a top-line center. Alexander noted the Hurricanes were among the teams linked to Avalanche pivot Matt Duchene leading up to deadline day. He also observed defenseman Ryan Murphy and forwards Teuvo Teravainen and Lee Stempniak were mentioned in media trade chatter.
Murphy, 23, popped up a couple of times in early-season trade speculation. Once considered a can’t-miss mobile defenseman, he’s struggled through injuries and inconsistency. He’s signed through 2017-18 at a very affordable $787,000.
The well-travelled Stempniak, 34, is also under contract next season at a cap hit of $2.5 million. Teravainen, 22, is a restricted free agent coming off his entry-level contract. Given his lack of arbitration rights, he’ll likely receive an affordable two-year bridge contract.
Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman suggested goaltender Eddie Lack could also be a trade option. The 29-year-old’s been a disappointment since his acquisition from Vancouver in June 2015. Hurricanes coach Bill Peters publicly chastised Lack’s performance recently, stoking speculation that this season could be the netminder’s last in Carolina.
Lack, Stempniak or Murphy could be included in a larger deal to bolster the Hurricanes’ offense. If they pursue Duchene, the Avalanche’s asking price is reportedly a good young NHL-ready defenseman or goaltender, a first-round pick, a top prospect and perhaps another piece such as a player, draft pick or prospect. Unless they reduce that price, however, Francis is unlikely to bite.
Given his depth in young blueliners, Francis could dangle one of them for a scoring center. The development of Jaccob Slavin and Noah Hanifin has prompted some talk that Justin Faulk might be available. He could be just the centerpiece in a package deal to attract some offensive punch.
Rumor Roundup appears regularly only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and The Guardian (P.E.I.).
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