Kari Lehtonen has become the goalie the Atlanta Thrashers deemed worthy of the 2nd overall pick in the 2002 draft. The Dallas Stars traded Ivan Vishnevskiy and a 4th round pick to acquire the injury-ridden goaltender in 2010. Ever since the trade, Kari has improved his GAA and SV% each year in Dallas. Although he always has a chance at re-injuring his groin, he has proven to be an above average (maybe even "elite") NHL goaltender.
Kari is signed with the Stars through the 2012-2013 season with a cap hit of $3,550,000 (which is a very "good" contract for a goalie of his caliber). However, if NHL goalie contact trends continue (which is a complete unknown given the pending CBA situation), Kari will be signing a bigger contract. If he becomes a UFA, is it lunacy to think that a team offers him a contract worth $30,000,000 over 5 years? I don't think it is. Especially considering the UFA goalie class of 2013 (more on this after jump).
Kari has become a fan favorite here in Dallas, but does he want to be part of the organization long term? Had the Stars not drafted Jack Campbell, I think this question and FanPost would not be necessary. Sure, the Stars would love to keep Kari for 2 more years, but it's highly unlikely that Kari signs a contract based on when Campbell is ready for a starting role in the NHL. Kari is 28-years-old and is in the "prime" years of his NHL career.
The Stars are going to have to make a decision similar to level of the Brad Richards situation. Should they trade a great NHL goalie that 3/4 of the league would love to have for a package of younger high-end players? Or should they take a different risk and possibly lose Kari for nothing in free agency?Kari put up career highs this past season in the two most important statistical areas for a goaltender. His 2.33 GAA ranked 5th in the league amongst goalies playing a minimum of 50 games. The only goalies he was behind were: Quick (1.95), Lundqvist (1.97), Howard (2.13) and Smith (2.21). His .922 SV% (which is significantly more important) also ranked 5th amongst goalies playing a minimum of 50 games. The goalies in front of him in this category were: Smith (.930), Lundqvist (.930), Quick (.929) and Rinne (.923). If we leave the St. Louis Blues' bizarre goalie situation and what's going on up in Vancouver out of the discussion, Kari is statistically a top-5 goalie in the league. If teams devalue him due to injuries, he is still a top-10 goalie in the NHL. His current contract is a bargain. I'm not going to put the effort into looking up the other top goalies' contracts and averaging them all together, but I'm pretty confident that all but Quick and Smith's are higher than Kari's.
Other 2013 UFA Goalies: Backstrom, Thomas, Howard, Nobakov, Smith and Quick. More can be found here.
So, what do the Stars do with their elite goalie? There are a few options.
Trade Kari to a team in need of a goalie (now or at the deadline).
This is the most drastic option with the most potential at getting a player(s) that can be added to the core of this team for the foreseeable future. This option adds to that "untouchable" list that we see on the rumor mill of Benn, Erikson and Goligoski. A team that would trade for Kari is likely to be "one goalie away" from being a legitimate contender or a middle of the pack team looking to sign an elite goalie to that big contract mentioned earlier.
What are some teams that fall into this scenario? The Chicago Black Hawks, Boston Bruins and Washington Capitals come to mind when thinking about those teams that get close, but fall short due to poor goaltending (Holtby was a pleasant surprise in Washington, but may have been a fluke and Tukka Rask may not pan out as well as the Bruins hope). The teams that come to mind when thinking about those who want to give Kari that big contract are the Toronto Maple Leafs, Edmonton Oilers, Columbus Blue Jackets and Tampa Bay Lightning.
Those 7 teams all have "stud" young talent that may be available to the Stars for Kari. I'm not going to speculate on exactly who the Stars should target. However, if a player is young with top-6/4 potential the Stars should have him on their radar.
Begin contract extension talk with Kari immediately and hope you can sign him to a 2-3 year deal at a good price.
This option should not even be an option, because it's a no-brainer. The beauty with this is if Kari intends to become a UFA and leaves Dallas, it gives the organization time to hashout Option 1 before the deadline. This option also allows the Stars to persuade Kari to sign that 2-3 year extension. Who knows? Maybe Kari has a soft spot for the organization and is on board with the Stars grooming Jack Campbell into a starting goalie (I highly doubt it, but you never know).
Sign Kari to that long-term deal, worry about Campbell later and hopefully continue to get elite goaltending for a while.
I think that this one makes the most since if the Stars are willing to eventually part with either Campbell or Kari in the future. This option allows the Stars the flexibility to develop Campbell slowly in the AHL and make him the starter when he actually is ready or trade him for high value in a situation similar to the ones going on with Vancouver Canucks and Los Angeles Kings.
If they sign Kari to a 6-7 year deal and manage to do it without a NTC (which they aren't really good at), they stick with Kari until he is 34-35 or trade him a few years into his deal for a future hole in the roster.
There are probably more "options" for the Stars to explore, but the clock is ticking and a decision has to be made. This team will look significantly different over the coming seasons. Whether those future teams have Kari on the roster or not is entirely up Joe Nieuwendyk and the rest of the front office. Does Tom Gaglardi want to make his first "big" move as owner of the Dallas Stars? This is the type of decision that will be highly investigated and even scrutinized by Stars fans and all NHL media. All I know is that I'm glad the decision is not up to me.