The Dallas Stars may have been the Western Conference’s top seed and took home a Central Division title, but in the post-season they were let down in large part by poor goaltending from Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi.
The play of the two netminders, who are signed for another two seasons at a combined $10.4 million, led many to believe the Stars would try in some way to get out from under the contracts of one or both netminders during the off-season. With four regular defensemen and four regular forwards up for unrestricted free agency, ditching the contracts of Lehtonen and Niemi would open up significant cap room for the Stars, space that would come especially in handy with Jamie Benn and Patrick Sharp slated for unrestricted free agency in 2017-18.
Some suggested possible trades of Lehtonen and Niemi, while others believed a buyout could be a possibility. And while a trade and buyout may still be on the table for Niemi, that doesn’t seem the case for Lehtonen. Asked about Lehtonen by Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, Stars GM Jim Nill said there’s no buyout coming for the netminder and it doesn’t sound like a trade is in the works, either.
“No, we’re not buying him out,” Nill told Friedman. “That last (playoff) game is not a full reflection of the season. Nobody remembers the game before where he stood on his head. He's disappointed, and the team is disappointed. We finished second overall, and everybody is focussed on the playoffs. Something went right too, you’ve got to be careful.”
The two games Nill is referencing are Games 6 and 7 of the Central Division final. Facing elimination in Game 6, Lehtonen stopped 35 of 37 shots and all but stole the game for the Stars to force a Game 7. However, on home ice in the series-deciding game, Lehtonen’s performance was ugly. In the first period, he allowed three goals on eight shots and was pulled after just 20 minutes of work. The Blues added three goals and won the series with a 6-1 victory in Game 7.
Lehtonen’s Game 7 performance isn’t on him alone, but his numbers throughout the post-season suggested he was more likely to turn in an underwhelming performance than a stellar one. In 11 post-season appearances, Lehtonen boasted a .899 SP and 2.81 goals-against average. At 5-on-5, Lehtonen’s playoff SP was .920. Of goaltenders to play beyond the first round, only Nashville’s Pekka Rinne, St. Louis’ Jake Allen and Niemi were worse.
But what’s astonishing is that Lehtonen’s .920 5-on-5 SP in the playoffs was a vast improvement over his .909 mark during the regular season. Of the 36 goaltenders to play at least 1,500 minutes at five-a-side during the season, Lehtonen’s .909 SP was dead last with Niemi boasting the better numbers with a .924 SP.
Lehtonen’s career statistics do indicate his 2015-16 season could have been a slight aberration from his usual play, though. The .909 SP is the worst mark he’s posted in the past nine seasons, and he’s been a .920-plus SP goaltender in seven of the past nine campaigns. It’s worrisome his two worst years have been the past two seasons. That said, Dallas has been in the bottom-third of the league in scoring chances against and high-danger chances against since the start of the 2014-15 campaign. That no doubt plays into Lehtonen’s SP drop.
If Lehtonen sticks around, though, it begs the question what happens with Niemi. His 5-on-5 SP indicates he was the more steady netminder in 2015-16 season, but his career numbers have been up and down, including two seasons below .920 and a 2014-15 campaign where he just barely eclipsed that mark. Making $4.5 million in each of the next two seasons, could Niemi be a buyout candidate? It would save the Stars $3 million in each of the next two seasons, but cost them $1.5 million in 2018-19 and 2019-20, according to CapFriendly.
There’s also the possibility, with an expansion draft potentially on the horizon, that Nill keeps both goaltenders and chooses which to expose should the draft come to be. That could possibly free the Stars of the cap hit for whichever goaltender is left unprotected without incurring any buyout penalty. But that would mean there’s at least $4.5 million in cap space taken up next season by a goaltender that the Stars don’t want beyond the 2016-17 campaign. That’s going to be tough to work with, and if Niemi or Lehtonen aren’t taken in an expansion draft, that plan will have backfired.
Regardless of what happens as the off-season approaches, how Nill and the Stars manage their goaltending situation will be interesting to watch. And while a trade may still be on the table, those thinking Nill would go all out and buyout his struggling netminders shouldn’t hold their breath. It seems Lehtonen is in Dallas to stay, and the same could be the case for Niemi.