[Ed. note: This was written before the Stars opened the season with a sparkling performance from Antti Niemi, but given the uncertainty still around the position, it's still very relevant.]
Once upon a time, the Dallas Stars endured a season with awful goaltending.
It came out of nowhere. Their veteran starter had put up a few good and even great seasons in a row, but something was different this year, as the formerly stalwart netminder dulled his stick blade shoveling pucks out of his net. On the bench, the alternative was no better as both the Stars' starter and backup goalie ended up with save percentages below .900 at the end of the season. In fact, they ended up with matching scarlet numbers of .898, ranking 41st and 42nd in the entire NHL.
No, trusting reader, I am not talking about last year. This was actually the 2005-2006 season, and the goaltenders were Marty Turco and Johan Hedberg. It was the year of the shootout's introduction, which is fitting since this year brings the first major rule change effected to destroy the shootout. So, yeah, things were weird back then. How weird? Well, try this on for size: despite atrocious save percentages by both goalies, the Stars won the Pacific Division by 13 points.
Yes, these abysmal numbers were somehow irrelevant to the win totals. Dallas put up 53 victories, good for second in the entire NHL that year, and earning themselves the title of second-best team in the entire Western Conference. Marty Turco would collect 41 of those victories, both the highest total of his career and the third-highest in the league that year. As for Hedberg, he also boasted a sparkling record, going 12-4-1 in spite of himself. And since the Stars would go on to win the Pacific that season, it's probably safe to say that no one was too concerned about any underlying numbers.
Speaking of which, the Stars were actually a pretty solid defensive team that season. Phillipe Boucher joined Sergei Zubov, Martin Skoula, Jon Klemm, Stephane Robidas and Trevor Daley en route to a season in which the Stars were the second-stingiest team in terms of shots allowed per 60 minutes. This meant that in spite of their goalies sporting woeful percentages, Dallas still had the sixth-best goals-against figure in the NHL and a plus-47 goal differential.
Save percentage is an interesting thing, really. It (and its permutations) is the best means we have of isolating goaltender performance, but sometimes things can get, well, weird. It's the same old argument you still hear today about the symbiotic relationship between goalies and their defense. One can, given the right circumstances, cover for the other. Turco had the 6th-worst high-danger save percentage of any starter that season, but his team also allowed him to face the 3rd-lowest total of those most deadly shots in the league. That's mitigating the problem.
Last year, the Stars' defense got better as the season went along, but the goalies got worse. Shot differentials got better, and teams were getting fewer chances overall, but Kari and his coterie found a way to let in just enough goals (especially on high-danger chances) to render that improved defense meaningless more times than Dallas could afford. It would cost them a season and a 3rd-round pick after Nill enacted the Enroth Protocol.
This time, just like ten years ago, the Stars are trusting a pair of thirty-somethings to at least hold serve, and it's not hard to see how things could unravel. An .898 save percentage was still putrid ten years ago, but in the rapidly stifling offensive environment of the league today, that level of generosity is absolute sabotage.
I do expect the Stars' defense to be good again this year, but they're going to need the goalies to meet them halfway. No team can pull a Central Division championship out of a sub-.900 SV% abyss without a herculean effort in shot suppression, and even the possessive Stars aren't quite there yet.
By the way, there was one other contributing factor in the 2005-2006 Stars' season: An incredible bit of shootout prowess, as the Zubie/Juice/Turco triumvirate (with some occasional help) supplied the Stars with an extra 12 wins that year. The skills competition may not be long for this world, but 3-v-3 OT offers a glorious chance to squeeze every last bit of juice out of three-point games this year. With the lethal triads Dallas can put out there, they have no excuse not to do just that.