With all of the talk this summer about positions of need that must be addressed through the draft or free agency, the goaltender position for the Dallas Stars has been mostly overlooked. Kari Lehtonen is close to moving into "elite" status in the NHL and Richard Bachman apparently set to be the backup next season, and with Jack Campbell already a superstar in Austin, it didn't seem that the Stars would be a team in need of adding extra depth at the NHL and AHL level at the position.
That's why the Stars turned heads last week with the announcement of not one but two goaltender signings for the organization. 28-year old Cristopher Nihlstorp was signed out of the Swedish Elitserien League to a two-way, NHL/AHL contract while Michigan Tech goaltender Josh Robinson signing a two-way contract with the Texas Stars. Both are regarded as pure depth signings to create competition in the organization, yet Nihlstorp represents a very interesting addition that could have significant ramifications at the NHL level.
Nihlstorp is the quintessential "late bloomer," coming to the Stars organization after two very strong years with Farjestad and four years total in the SEL. After winning the SEL championship as part of a goaltender tandem in 2011, Nihlstorp was courted by several NHL teams yet chose to stay in the SEL for one more season. The gamble paid off, as Nihlstorp played 45 games and proved himself to be one of the top goaltenders in the league, with a 1.90 GAA and .928 save percentage.
The Stars weren't the only team going after Nihlstorp, yet he chose to sign a two-way contract with the Stars and while only being guaranteed the chance to compete for the backup position in Dallas. It could be argued that the main reason Nihlstorp would choose Dallas is mostly because of Mike Valley, the Stars goaltender coach has not only played in Sweden but also speaks the language.
After the jump, we look at what the additions mean to the Dallas Stars as an organization and find out exactly what this Cristopher Nihlstorp is all about.
Nihlstorp is going to get a lot of comparisons to another goaltender that was heavily courted coming out of Sweden, Jonas Gustavsson. Both are lanky, long-limbed goaltenders with very good size in net (Nihlstorp is listed at 6-3, 192 pounds) with above-average mechanics and reflexes. Gustavsson was given the dog-and-pony show here in Dallas and elsewhere and ultimately chose to go to Toronto, where he's played two very inconsistent seasons and seems to have done the Stars a favor by signing with the Leafs.
Justin Goldman of The Goalie Guild, is of the opinion that the transition to North America won't be as rocky for Nihlstorp, who comes to Dallas with a great work ethic and the maturity to be able to learn and grow while adjusting. Goldman says that it's Valley, however, that makes the biggest difference.
In Toronto, Gustavsson elected to work with Francois Allaire, and there was a much more significant alteration to Gustavsson's overall game and style. When this happens, certain elements of a goalie's game can erode or be coached out of them. With Nihlstorp, I'm not worried about that happening. He will be allowed to play the same way he has for the last two years, with only minor adjustments made where they're deemed most necessary.
Furthermore, Nihlstorp is on a two-way deal, which means he can actually spend some time honing his skills and getting comfortable in the AHL. This is a luxury Gustavsson did not receive when he first started his career with the Maple Leafs, and as I have said numerous times, I think it really damaged his ability to play with more consistency over the past two seasons.
So what does Nihlstorp mean for the depth at the position, specifically when it comes to Richard Bachman? The Stars control the rights to Bachman, who went 8-5-1 last season with a 2.77 GAA and .910 save percentage after taking over the backup role from Andrew Raycroft. He showed the ability to be an above-average backup but there are still questions as to his viability as a long-term solution at the position and whether he'll ever be a starting goaltender in the NHL.
What the signing of Nihlstorp says is that the Stars are going to be proactive in building competition at every position on the roster, a sign of a organization that is certainly striving to improve. It was a smart signing that allows great flexibility for the team and the players, especially if Bachman is signed to a two-way contract as well.
The Stars appear ready to provide the opportunity for competition at the position, with Nihlstorp likely getting the chance to compete for the backup role in the NHL out of training camp and throughout the preseason. It's very likely that Nihlstorp still debuts in the AHL as he adjusts to North American hockey and smaller rinks, but the flexibility is there for him to move up to the NHL if Bachman falters or Lehtonen is out due to injury.
While Nihlstorp is a late bloomer and that raises a few red flags for some, goaltenders tend to develop much slower than other positions and it's not unheard of for elite goaltenders to not reach their full potential until late in their 20s. It's very likely that he could continue the path he was on in Sweden and provide the Stars with not only an excellent backup option in the NHL, but also a player that could continue to push Kari Lehtonen to improve as well, something that every team and player needs -- competition from behind them.
Mike Valley, speaking to Mike Heika, makes it clear that the Stars are high on the new goaltender in their system.
"Competition is great for everyone, and I think we'll have a great competition," said Stars goalie coach Mike Valley, who had a big hand in finding and recruiting Nihlstorp. "We think Christopher will step right in and be a part of the push to get better."
"He was one of the top goalies over there, he served as the No. 3 goalie at the World Championships, he's definitely considered an elite goalie," Vallley said. "And he's very hungry to see if he can make it in the NHL."
At the very least, the Stars have solidified the position and provided more options than they previously had. The situation is a bit different than other teams, perhaps, as the #1 goaltender in the AHL is not the automatic callup to the NHL for the Dallas Stars. Jack Campbell, playing his first full season in the AHL, will be getting most starts for the Texas Stars and is likely not to get called to the NHL unless an absolute emergency dictates it. Nihlstorp, if he does start in the AHL, will backup Campbell and then provide an option to jump him should the situation arise that the Stars need another goaltender in Dallas.
Of course, this leaves someone like Tyler Beskorowany on the outside looking in. The 2008 second round draft pick made the jump from ECHL to the AHL last season and failed to grasp the starter's job once Bachman was called up to the NHL. While much of the problems in goal can be attributed to the defensive and systemic issues of the Texas Stars, there were noticeable problems with Beskorowany's mechanics and there were some perceived work ethic issues as well, that left the Dallas Stars not happy with their goaltender prospect at the end of the season.
When news came down about the Nihlstorp signing the first assumption was that Beskorowany would be headed to the ECHL to hopefully get his game back on track. Yet word is that he does not want to be "demoted" to the ECHL and there is the possibility that he could be traded to another organization. The situation was then further clouded by news that the Texas Stars had added goaltender Josh Robinson, who went 15-14-4 last season with Michigan State with a 2.83 GAA and .909 save percentage.
According to 100 Degree Hockey, Robinson is signed to a two-way contract between the AHL and ECHL and is purely a depth signing for the AHL. Stephen Meserve makes a great point about how the Stars are looking for more systemic alignment between all levels, and with the Allen Americans representing the CHL feeder for the Stars, Robinson could end up there.
As I discussed yesterday, I don't think it's likely that Beskorowany would be assigned to Idaho. Robinson is the most likely assignment for that team. Idaho has had a need for a "system" goaltender for the past two seasons. Robinson could be it. Then again, Robinson could be a signing intended for Allen, and Beskorowany could indeed be headed out or to Idaho. My thinking there is that the Stars as an organization might be trying to assist the Americans more now that "they" are more invested in the team (Modano, Belfour, etc as owners).
Of course, with six goaltenders now in the organizations pro ranks, someone is going to be left on the outside looking in. There chance for a trade certainly exists right now, whether that's a sign-and-trade for Bachman or even just a trade for his rights (with Bachman being a RFA), and there is always the remote chance that the Stars could be gearing up to use Jack Campbell as a significant asset in a major trade this summer.
The problem still exists that the Stars, aside from Lehtonen and perhaps Bachman, do not have much proven depth in the system. While a Campbell trade is always a possibility, the Stars need to assure themselves that the future of the position is as squared away as possible -- and Nihlstorp is far from a proven commodity.
At the very least, the Dallas Stars have been proactive in providing themselves depth and options at the position -- a further sign that the Stars are turning a corner from the dark days of the past few years into becoming a well-run and proactive organization once more.