Over the past two seasons Kari Lehtonen has arguably been the Stars best or most valuable player. The Stars defensive struggles are common knowledge. Yet, despite their defensive short-comings, the Stars were fighting for a playoff spot in the final days of the season for the second straight year. Without Kari how close does this team get to a playoff berth?
The Stars will have to face that prospect in the not too distant future. Lehtonen has one year remaining on his contract with the Stars before dipping his toe into the unrestricted free agent pool for the first time in his career. If his 2013 season is on par with his 2011 and 2012 seasons he will be in line for a big payday. What kind of contract can Kari expect, and what ramifications does the Lehtonen decision have on the Stars roster going forward? We'll explore those and many other questions after the jump.
There are several issues to consider before we discuss what value to assign Kari Lehtonen going forward. One question is going to linger over this post until the end: should the Stars extend Kari Lehtonen long term? Answering that question is our endgame so for now just keep it in mind. Before we attempt to answer that question it would be wise to acquaint ourselves with the other roster issues that should be top of mind for the Stars during this process.
The roster at present is in a state of flux. The Stars of the twenty teens have little in the way of a project-able identity. Currently they have only three players signed to contracts of longer than two years (Loui Eriksson, Trevor Daley, and Alex Goligoski). None of the three make huge money. Jamie Benn, Tomas Vincour, Philip Larsen, and Richard Bachman are under control for several years. They have the makings of a solid roster, and with Lehtonen's contract coming to an end after next season the Stars are going to be forced to decide if he will also be part of that group.
What happens to the goalies already in the system after an extension for Kari? The Stars invested a high first round pick in Jack Campbell, and at some point during Lehtonen's extension Campbell is going to need to play meaningful NHL minutes. Considering where Campbell is in his development he isn't a particularly high concern, but given that Lehtonen is very likely to receive a No Movement Clause of some significance the situation could get complicated eventually if Campbell develops the way the Stars hope he will.
This might seem like a strange question, but it needs to be considered at least momentarily by the Stars before they ink Lehtonen to a big time deal. Is Lehtonen much better than Richard Bachman? Drawing conclusions about Bachman vs Lehtonen isn't possible given how little experience Bachman has in the NHL. 15 games for a goalie is just about irrelevant to future performance for a goalie, but Bachman was actually a hair better than Kari at even strength last year.
Bachman's future isn't something that will keep the Stars from signing Lehtonen this off season for sure. Suppose they are unable to reach an agreement this off season though. Then Kari hurts himself in camp, and Bachman takes over in net. If Bachman is league average next year and affordable would the Stars be better served allocating the Lehtonen money elsewhere? I would still lean heavily towards signing Kari if the terms are within reason, but injuries are going to continue to be a question mark going forward.
One final consideration for the Stars runs parallel to the Bachman point. Is paying a premium to keep Kari Lehtonen in Dallas worth the price given the relatively small difference between an average goalie and elite goalie? A league average save percentage is somewhere in the ballpark of .912. Assume Kari is able to continue playing at last year's career best .922 save percentage. Over 1800 shots (around 60 games) in a season that's a difference of 18 goals, or one goal every three games. Whether or not that premium is ultimately worth it will be answered in time, but the answer will again come back to what kind of terms they are able to get Kari to agree to sign.
What terms can Kari reasonably expect to receive as a free agent? Currently two other netminders are going to be seeking large raises in 2013 with Kari. Both Jimmy Howard and Jonathan Quick are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents. I would be shocked to see either hit the market, but not stunned. At the moment Kari is looking at some competition for money. The money necessary to lock up "that guy" in net moves into uncomfortable territory quickly. Below are the notable goaltender contracts of the past few seasons.*
*I didn't include Marc-Andre Fleury or Martin Brodeur. Brodeur isn't included for the obvious age considerations. Fleury signed his contract at 23 so he wasn't signed in response to pending free agency which is usually going to drive a contract's value up. It's also very possible I forgot someone, but that shouldn't change the idea here.
*I removed the final few years on the CBA circumventing deals to give a more fair represntation of the actual value of the deal. Luongo had four removed. Bryzgalov lost two.
The moral of this story is that goalies get paid. Over the past four years goalies have signed extensions worth in the ballpark of five years for 32.44 million dollars and a 6.15 million cap hit without the CBA circumventing years tacked on at the end. Kari and his representation would be well within their rights to ask for a contract comparable to that of Ryan Miller based on recent trends. They could realistically ask for higher when you factor in inflation on some of the deals, but the upcoming CBA negotiations are likely to stamp down some of that inflation.
The next reasonable question to ask is "How does Kari stack up with those guys?". If he's going to be asking for a contract in that range he needs to have the statistical foundation in place to back up his request. Below are the relevant stats for each goalie mentioned above.
*Even strength save percentage over a four year period. Overall save percentage fluctuates wildly. A big reason for that is shorthanded save percentage is very erratic. So, special teams statistics are removed to try to identify the "true talent" of the goalie. GAA is also for the past four years.
...and now how the average production of that group compares to Kari Lehtonen....
The quick eye test tells us that Kari can reasonably be put in the same group with the recent mega goalie deals. His save percentage fits in at about average for that group of eleven goalies over the past four years. The midpoint of those contracts is, as I mentioned above, about five years and 32 million dollars or the Ryan Miller contract. Kari also has similar counting stats to Miller over the past four years so it wouldn't be much of a shock if his representatives used Miller's contract as a negotiating point.
Should the Stars sign Kari to a five year deal for 32 million though? If he remains healthy there is a good enough chance that he can match the production of the other big earners, but the Stars have to be confident than Kari can give them 60 games a year going forward before they can begin negotiating in earnest. I would still be skeptical of handing out a contract that large to a goalie, but that group is a consistently good group. Kari may end up overpaid, but barring something unforeseen he shouldn't become an albatross. When factoring in the stability a long term extension would bring it's reasonable for the fanbase to expect the Stars to get this deal done.