The Dallas Stars signed goaltender Kari Lehtonen to a five-year, $29 million contract extension today, on the eve of the expiration of the current CBA and what is likely to be a significantly delayed season with the impending lockout. Nonetheless, the Stars have gone ahead and accomplished what many expected was coming and signed their star goaltender to a long-term contract that has the Stars goaltender under control through the age of 35.
It's certainly a hefty proposition, having a goaltender under contract through that age, and already we're seeing across the national media the common narrative that Lehtonen may be too injury-prone to deserve such a contract -- especially since he's only risen up the ranks of NHL goaltenders the past two seasons. Puck Daddy, in particular, feels the $5.9 million average-annual value may be a bit too rich.
We're not in love with the money on this deal, but it is what it is. The deal eats up all UFA years, hence the high cap hit. And if the standard for an effective but oft-injured goalie is $6 million AAV (a.k.a. Niklas Backstrom) then you better understand the Lehtonen deal.
The simple truth is that this contract is about as close to the perfect balance between team and player needs as you'll find and while the annual value may be a bit too rich for some, it's right on par with what the NHL trend has become the past few years.
More after the jump.
There's this common narrative with Kari Lehtonen that has followed him for his entire NHL career and justly so; he's a talented goaltender who has has trouble staying healthy due to either bad luck or conditioning. He's fought groin issues for most of his career and back injuries and surgeries led to the goalie missing nearly an entire calendar year before he was traded to Dallas in 2010. That fact alone had many wondering if the trade at the time was the right decision, but the Stars immediately signed him to a three-year contract and he suddenly became the goalie the team's hopes and dreams depended upon.
In two full seasons with the Dallas Stars, Lehtonen has played 69 and 59 games, respectively, and has dealt with injuries in each year. Last season, a groin injury kept Lehtonen off the ice for nearly a month and suddenly the same discussion was being brought up across the hockey world -- Lehtonen is great but he just can't stay healthy.
The ideal amount of games for a goaltender like Lehtonen to play in a season is around 60, a number that Eddie Belfour hovered around in his time with the Stars and one that likely fits best with Lehtonen. He's not the sort of goaltender that can play 75 games and then lead a team in the playoffs; we witnessed in 2010-11 how Lehtonen appeared to fade as the team relied more and more on him the second half of the season.
Is a five year extension, one that doesn't kick in until next season and has Lehtonen under control through 2018, too much for a goaltender with his injury history? Perhaps, but the simple fact is that is the market for goaltenders right now. The contract puts Lehtonen's annual value within the top ten goaltenders in the NHL and last season one could argue that Lehtonen was a top ten goaltender in the league -- the question is whether he can sustain it.
Nevertheless, the contract is almost exactly what Josh Lile of Defending Big D predicted would happen. Back in May, he wrote that the contract Lehtonen could reasonably expect would be right in line what the trend across the NHL was showing:
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.
Lehtonen's average production compared favorably to the goaltenders who all received notable extensions the past few years and the contract he signed actually fell a bit lower than the market average. While concerns over his health may be valid, Lehtonen certainly received fair value -- both for the player and for the team.
Signing any goaltender to long-term contracts is a dicey situation and one that many feel should only be done with extreme caution; nonetheless, it's something that has to happen if the team wants to continue to be competitive in the short and long-term future. And the term makes absolute and complete sense for the Dallas Stars.
The Dallas Stars have Jack Campbell, both the top goaltending prospect in the system but the top prospect overall, beginning his pro career down in Austin this season. There's been worry that the Stars would be forced to rush his development and his path to the NHL if a long-term deal with Lehtonen wasn't found. This contract, however, allows the Stars plenty of time and flexibility to find the perfect path for Campbell and one that means he won't have to be rushed into duty before he is ready.
It's important to remember that Campbell is just 20 years old. When Lehtonen's contract expires, he'll be 26 and just entering his "prime" as an athlete. By comparison, Marty Turco didn't become the full-time starter for the Stars until he was 27 years old.
Campbell is starting his first full season in the AHL this year and likely could use two full seasons at that level before the Stars even begin to think of bringing him up for backup duties behind Lehtonen. With the emergence of Richard Bachman as a viable NHL backup and the signing of Cristopher Nihlstorp in the offseason, the Stars suddenly have plenty of room for flexibility and growth at the goaltender spot that prevents Campbell from being pushed into duty before he's ready.
That Lehtonen's contract also allows for flexibility should not be overlooked; in three or four years, the contract will certainly be seen as good value if he maintains this current production. Of course, a goaltender's value will skyrocket with good performances in the postseason and if Lehtonen can lead the Stars there -- then suddenly this extension looks all the more savvy for GM Joe Nieuwendyk.
What's interesting is how the Stars signed Lehtonen to an extension that would still fall within the guidelines of the CBA proposed by the NHL. There's a lot of talk about signing a contract that will likely get rolled back anyway but we have to remember -- all players in the NHL would have their salaries rolled back by the same percentage. Kari Lehtonen's comparative value of his contract will stay the same when weighed against other similar goaltenders.
All in all, this has to be considered a fair contract for both Lehtonen and the Stars. It's a smart extension handed out by Joe Nieuwendyk that shows good faith in his goaltender. The timing is interesting but many other teams are signing their big players to extensions on Friday as well in light of the impending lockout; it only makes sense for the Stars to do the same with Lehtonen.