For the Texas Stars going into the start of the 2012-2013 AHL season, goaltending was a position of optimistic uncertainty.
Without a tried, tested and true number one to rely on, the team was eagerly looking towards two talented, potential-filled netminders with unique hockey histories to compete against each other to secure that role.
On one hand, Christopher Nihlstorp, a 28 year-old Swede with nearly a decade of experience playing in Sweden's top competitive leagues. After stellar play in his last two seasons in the Swedish Elite League, backstopping his Farjestad BK team to an SEL championship in 2011, Nihlstorp was signed by the Stars as a free agent this summer and brought over to North American ice for the first time not only as AHL depth, but as a legitimate contender for the backup spot in Dallas behind Kari Lehtonen
On the other hand is Jack Campbell, age 20, a player that Stars fans are well familiar with. Dallas' 1st round, 11th overall selection in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft (the highest drafted goalie in team history), Campbell's hockey career has been mired with inconsistency up to this point: back-to-back disappointing post-draft seasons in the OHL, contrasted against phenomenal play at the international level (World Juniors gold medalist for Team USA in 2010, best goalie award and tournament All-Star selection in 2011) and a steady 4-7 record with a .912 save percentage after being called up to the struggling Texas team at the end of the 2012 season.
However, now 11 games into the season, what the Stars were hoping would be a position of strength (two quality goalies pushing and one-upping each other to become the team's #1) has quickly turned into a position of turmoil.
Not only has neither netminder seized the reigns as Texas' go-to guy, but both have struggled to find and maintain consistent stability within the Stars net, something that is an absolute necessity as a team's last lines of defense.
As of this writing, Campbell is sporting a modest 2-2-0-1 record with a shaky 3.30 goals against average and an even more worrisome .868 save percentage. Nihlstorp isn't far off, with a 2-4 record, 3.20 G.A.A. and a .870 save percentage.
While the win-loss record is the most important column overall and isn't to the point of panic, those numbers haven't come easy. To put the duo's save percentage stats (arguably the single most telling of a goalie's performance) into perspective, Nihlstorp and Campbell rank 42 and 43, respectively, out of a total of 46 AHL goaltenders that have played 240 minutes or more this year.
To put it bluntly, despite their previously demonstrated accomplishments and unique potentials, neither goalie's play has been good enough so far this season.
The cause of their rough starts is hard to determine. Rookie jitters, considering that neither has played a full season at the AHL level? Adjustment to a new (and also AHL rookie) head coach, Willie Desjardins? A defensive core that hasn't been supportive enough? The influx of NHL-caliber offensive players that are in the minors right now due to the NHL lockout? Perhaps it's all of these combined, plus more?
Right now it's hard to say. But with Texas currently tied for 29th overall in the league, what is easy to say is that the goaltending situation needs to improve, and fast, if the Stars are to fight their way into a playoff spot.
Making matters even more interesting was the news on Monday that the team has recalled 22 year-old goalie Josh Robinson from their ECHL affiliate Idaho Steelheads.
It was relatively insignificant news this summer when the then-unknown Robinson was signed as a free agent after going 15-14-4 with a .909 save percentage during his senior year with Michigan Tech of the NCAA. People have started to take notice of Robinson lately, however, thanks to a hot 5-0-0-1 record and .920 save percentage for the offense-oriented Steelheads.
Worth noting is that Robinson was recalled ahead of Idaho teammate Tyler Beskorowany, a second round pick of Dallas in 2008 that played for Texas the past two seasons, but was demoted to the ECHL this summer due to lackluster performance last season. Dallas Stars Director of Player Personnel Les Jackson said in August that Beskorowany had to be "the best player at his position at that level" if he were to get another shot in Texas, but it appears that Robinson is the one that has emerged with that distinction.
With no reported injuries (so far) to either Nihlstorp or Campbell, it currently appears that Robinson's recall could be a reactionary one, opposed to one of an emergency nature.
While Robinson heading to Texas might simply be nothing but a hollow warning sign to Nihlstorp and Campbell that they need to improve their play or else someone else will get their minutes, coach Desjardins has made it clear early on so far in his tenure that he is not afraid to bench players if they aren't competing to a level of his liking, regardless of who they are and their status in the organization (Scott Glennie and Austin Smith have been shown this first hand already).
It shouldn't come as a surprise if Robinson gets a chance to start one of Texas' upcoming games, because at this point, what else does the team have to lose? Nihlstorp played his best game of the season in this past Sunday's 4-2 win over the Houston Aeros, but hasn't shown enough consistency yet this season to have guaranteed minutes, while Campbell looked shaky at best in his 5-4 shootout loss to the Lake Erie Monsters on Saturday.
The biggest problem, however, could come if Robinson does get to start in the near future...and wins. While it would be good for Texas to improve their net presence, it would be a bad sign for Dallas, who are hoping for big things out of Nihlstorp in the short term and expecting very, very big things out of Campbell in the long term, given his lofty draft status. Sending either goalie to Idaho, even for a short time, would be a sobering sign that things aren't going fully as planned in the goaltending department.
Still, the season is quite young, and as mentioned before both goalies have proven themselves to be capable of dominating in the past, and there are a variety of factors that could be contributing to their early struggles, none of which are at the point where they are irreparable. But one way or another things are starting to get very interesting in the Texas crease, and it will be an important story that fans of the team will want to keep an eye on as the season progresses.