It was “Wow” and “It figures” rolled into one. Game 7 of the St. Louis Blues and Dallas Stars’ Central Division final matchup was surprising and unsurprising.
The Stars, eating a 6-1 drubbing at home after winning Game 6 on the road? Hm. Not sure anyone saw such a lopsided defeat coming. But the way they lost summed up their season, as a festering problem never got resolved. It came down to goaltending.
Kari Lehtonen was a nightmare in Game 7, allowing three goals on eight shots. One game earlier, he was sensational, stopping 35 of 37 Blues attempts and almost singlehandedly extending the series. Lehtonen appeared in 11 playoff games, posting a save percentage of .946 or higher in four and an SP below .900 in six. He got pulled mid-game twice.
Antti Niemi entered Wednesday’s Game 7 in relief after the first period and wasn’t much better, allowing two goals on 10 shots. He, too, was inconsistent in the post-season, posing a .933 SP or better twice and sitting below .800 in his three other appearances, two of which came in relief.
No one should act overly shocked to learn the Stars’ goaltending undid them when it mattered in the post-season. General manager Jim Nill believed it was prudent to spell Kari Lehtonen because of Dallas’ brutal travel schedule and committed a $4.5-million cap hit last summer for three years of Niemi’s services. Coupled with Lehtonen’s $5,9-million AAV, that meant a $10.2-million commitment for two goalies who weren’t top-15 commodities in the NHL. Lehtonen and Niemi ranked 38th and 40th in 2015-16 with SPs of .906 and .905, respectively. Among the 49 goalies with 1,000 or more minutes played 5-on-5 this year, Lehtonen was 47th, Niemi 29th. Poor regular-season play translated into unreliable post-season play in the end, and coach Lindy Ruff’s occasional wavering between starters from game to game couldn’t have helped either netminder’s confidence.
It’s important for Dallas to ponder its crease situation hard this off-season, not simply because sub-par goaltending will hold the franchise back, but because a goaltending upgrade could make this team truly special. The glass isn’t half empty here. The Stars have plenty going for them. They were the NHL’s most dominant offensive team this season, ranking first in goals and second in Corsi For per 60 minutes. Only the L.A. Kings did a better job assaulting opposing nets with chances. Stars captain Jamie Benn has matured into an elite player, one of the five best in the league, and Tyler Seguin is a premier scorer at 24, with additional room for growth. We can’t forget Seguin suited up for just one playoff game and Dallas still got to within one victory of the Western Conference final.
The Stars have a strong second-line center and power play specialist in Jason Spezza. With Patrick Sharp in tow as well, they have a nice veteran scoring contingent. Cody Eakin is an ideal checking center, Antoine Roussel one of the game’s best agitators. John Klingberg has blossomed into an outstanding, game-breaking offensive defenseman.
And the Stars have help on the way from their youth. Radek Faksa bloomed a bit later than expected but flashed the two-way acumen in these playoffs that made him a first-round pick in 2012. Valeri Nichushkin has plenty of time to grow into a deadly power forward, and last year’s first-rounder, Denis Gurianov, projects similarly. Jason Dickinson could eventually succeed Spezza as the team’s second-best scoring center. Julius Honka and Esa Lindell will bring additional puck-moving ability to the blueline. Stephen Johns profiles as a future minute-muncher. He was steal as a throw-in from Chicago in the Sharp trade.
The Stars (a) already were good enough to win the Central Division title in 2015-16; (b) have not peaked and seem to be getting better, with more youth on the way; (c) have enough good young talent in the farm system that they could probably spare a prospect in a trade; and (d) have glaring immediate needs at defense and in goal. I smell a trade or two.
Defense has to be addressed. Alex Goligoski, Jason Demers, Kris Russell and Jordie Benn all hit unrestricted free agency this off-season. The Stars were sieve-like defensively this year, ranking 20th in Corsi Against per 60 minutes, and could use some veteran help while they wait for the young studs to develop.
But let’s turn our attention back to goaltending for the moment. Dallas could turn itself into a juggernaut if it eschews the 1A/1B model and lands a bona fide starter. The Pittsburgh Penguins’ Marc-Andre Fleury could be available on the trade market if Matt Murray continues to flourish. But I’d like to throw another name out:
Crazy? Unlikely? Probably and yes. But it could make a lot of sense for both teams. It’s easy enough to understand from Dallas’ perspective. Lundqvist remains one of the league’s best goalies at 34. He may be past his prime, but 34 isn’t as old for a goalie as it is for a skater. He’d constitute a massive upgrade in net. Niemi and Lehtonen have modified no-trade clauses as opposed to universally restrictive ones, meaning they can submit lists of a handful of teams to which they wouldn’t accept deals, and perhaps either guy would waive his clause if it meant a better opportunity to win clear-cut starting duty in the Big Apple. Either way, if Nill unloads Niemi’s $4.5 million or Lehtonen’s $5.9 million in a trade to New York, Lundqvist’s $8.5-million cap hit becomes stomachable. If Nill was still worried about travel and fatigue, he’d still have one of Lehtonen or Niemi to spell Hank for, say, 25 games.
And might a Lundqvist deal be just what the Rangers need? It appears their Stanley Cup window is starting to close after several years of deep playoff runs. They have mortgaged their future in championship-push deals so often in the past half decade that they’ve picked in the top 40 at the draft once since 2012. They don’t select until 80th in 2016. Our scouting panel ranked their farm system dead last among all 30 NHL teams in THN Future Watch 2016. There’s little to no help coming aside from Pavel Buchnevich. and a good chunk of this roster is aging, especially on defense. Dan Boyle will likely retire. Dan Girardi has regressed into a shell of what he used to be.
A trade with the Stars could remedy the Rangers’ future. Dallas has enough prospects that it could spare this year’s top pick, which will be a late first-rounder but would still be the Rangers’ highest pick since 2011, when they nabbed J.T. Miller 15th. The Stars might have a redundancy between Klingberg, Honka and Lindell, all of whom have tantalizing puck skills, so let’s add a piece there. A 2016 first-rounder, Esa Lindell and Niemi or Lehtonen for Lundqvist? Not bad, especially since it relieves the Rangers of five more years of Lundqvist. The Stars can take that on, as their contention window has just opened. They’re in position to compete for the Cup over the next several years. And the Rangers wouldn’t be in awful shape in net without Lundqvist. They could give Antti Raanta a chance to start or at least battle Niemi or Lehtonen for the job. And they’d only be on the hook for two more seasons of whichever two goalies end up as their 2016-17 tandem out of that trio.
Lastly, if the Rangers decide they must rebuild at least a little bit, go backward to go forward, does ‘The King’ want to wait around for that? He’s 34 and has a Vezina Trophy and Olympic gold medal to his name. He needs a Cup to cement that Hall of Fame legacy. He doesn’t have time to wait for a rebuild. A trade to Dallas would put him back in the championship mix for several more seasons. And, as a famously cosmopolitan man, he’d move from America’s most populous city to its ninth-most populous. Not a huge downgrade. Lundqvist could still scratch his city-slicker itch. Given all the advantages of a move, it wouldn’t be ludicrous to picture him waiving his no-movement clause.
So how about it? Lundqvist to the Stars feels like a win-win situation.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin