(Hello. This is Part 3 of a three-part feature where I take a look beyond this season and examine how established the Stars are at different areas for the immediate future. I covered the forwards and the defense in previous weeks, and now it's the goalies' turn).
When former Dallas Stars general manager Joe Nieuwendyk signed netminder Kari Lehtonen to a new 5-year, $29.5 million contract back in 2012, the deal was struck with the plan in mind that Lehtonen would anchor the team's goaltending for the foreseeable future, proving consistency and stability.
Things went splendidly for the first two years, with the Finland native going 15-14-3 with a .916 save percentage in the lockout-shortened 2013 season and then an even better 33-20-10 with a .919 save percentage last season. Despite having lackluster defenses in front of him, Lehtonen still managed to perform as one of the better goalies in the entire league, bailing out his team and single-handedly stealing games on a regular basis.
What was once considered a rock-solid foundation, however, now appears to be on shakier ground.
Lehtonen has struggled this year compared to prior seasons. His 21-11-7 record looks good on the surface, but his save percentage has fallen down to an nasty .905, well below what number one goalies usually average. The types of goals that have gone in has also been worrisome, many of which would have been routinely stopped by him just as recently as last year.
Combine that with disappointing play from Anders Lindback and Jussi Rynnas, the two goalies signed this summer to compete for the backup position, and it's been a tough year for Dallas' goaltending as a whole.
The biggest question now, however, is what does it all mean for the Stars going forward?
First, let's take a look at which goalies the Stars have under contract, and for how long (all numbers courtesy of NHLNumbers.com):
Impending free agents: Anders Lindback
With three years and $17 million left on his contract, the Stars still have a lot invested in Lehtonen.
But what kind of goaltender can the Stars expect to have for those remaining three years?
Will it be the big, aggressive, positionally-sound netminder that can steal games and has a career save percentage of .916, or will it be the 2014-2015 version that has looked smaller and uncertain enough times to cause concern?
Lehtonen is currently 31 years-old, which puts him in murky waters from an age standpoint. Some goalies can play at a highly competitive level until they're 35 or 36, whereas others turn a dark corner once they hit 30 and their careers never recover. At this point it's difficult to say which category Lehtonen will fall under.
On one hand, there have been a handful of times this season where he has looked fantastic, the most recent of which being a 38-save performance over the Winnipeg Jets on Saturday. There's a very good chance that he can still return to his previous level of play when that sort of game was the rule, not the exception.
On the other hand, what happens if Lehtonen doesn't fully bounce back? The Stars are a young team right now, but they're steadily growing and putting themselves into a position where they hope to be serious contenders in the Western Conference in the next few years. If the rest of the team is firing on all cylinders, will Lehtonen still be good enough to help the team advance deep into the playoffs?
Making matters even more concerning is that the Stars' insurance plans are also full of questions.
Lindback was a gamble that the Stars took and lost, unless he is able to somehow put together the best stretch of puck-stopping of his entire career in the remainder of this season. He's a free agent this summer and, at this point, it's highly unlikely that the Stars will elect to bring him back.
Rynnas, the other goalie signed last summer, struggled to start the year, but has turned things around lately and been playing quite well for the AHL's Texas Stars. That being said, his abilities are probably better suited to being a number one at the AHL level instead of being relied upon as a backup in the NHL. Rynnas could probably hold his own if he had to, but he will likely spend next year in Texas again as there will be better backup options available for the Stars.
And then there's Jack Campbell. Campbell, the 11th overall pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, was once seen as the heir to Lehtonen's number one throne, and maybe still is, but that road has been rocky along the way. He was outstanding for the Texas Stars in limited duty last year, posting a .941 save percentage in 16 games, but that number is down to .890 this season. He was expected to split starting duties with Rynnas throughout the campaign but quickly lost the job, leaving Rynnas as the de facto number one goalie on the team.
Campbell is only 23 years old, so there's still plenty of time for him to refine his game. The flashes of brilliance that he's shown at times in the past suggests that he has the potential to become a number one goalie in the NHL. He's an RFA at the end of this year, but it's almost a guarantee that the Stars re-sign him. Still, the fact that Campbell has taken a step back this year is a cause for concern. He's missed significant time due to injury over the past two seasons, and that's something that you always need to be careful about when it comes to goalies. Will Campbell be ready to seize the starting job in Dallas when it comes time for Lehtonen to relinquish it?
All that being said, what should the Stars do next?
Given the questions surrounding both Lehtonen and Campbell, the best course of action for Dallas is to strongly pursue a young-ish goalie that could not only hold down the fort as the backup, but also potentially take over duties as the main starter.
Luckily for the Stars, it looks like a number of these goaltenders will be available this summer: free agents Jhonas Enroth, Michal Neuvirth and Karri Ramo, and realistic trade targets James Reimer and Eddie Lack. There would be a bit of risk involved with each, but all are in the prime years of their careers and have been able to adequately handle number one duties before, at least for a short time.
With so many questions and not enough answers, the Stars are stuck playing a game of wait-and-see with the goaltending assets that they currently have. They'll need to act fast, however, when it comes to putting safeguards in place just in case the answers don't end up being the ones that they want to hear.