Early in Thursday's game, if you looked up at the American Airlines Center scoreboard at just the right moment, there was quite an interesting stat. According to the display, the Dallas Stars had given up two goals on just one shot.
Now, that was just a timing error, but it fits the mood about the Stars goaltending situation perfectly. Kari Lehtonen has been, as we covered earlier this week, a career-worst kind of awful this season, and things don't seem to be getting any better.
In Thursday's loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, for instance, Lehtonen gave up two goals on the first two shots. His teammates clawed their way back into the game, then had to tie it again after a pretty power play goal. But Lehtonen's fourth goal against of the night, which was tipped in tight but far from unstoppable, took the wind out of the Stars sails for good.
While Lehtonen made some strong saves in the game, it was the same pattern the Stars have seen throughout the season. He makes a few saves he shouldn't but lets in far more that he should stop. In Thursday's game, Lehtonen had a .857 save percentage and left his coach saying, "Kari wasn't good enough for us tonight."
That's been the case far too many times this season and something that makes Stars games imminently frustrating to watch. They are outplaying teams in almost every way except in net and on the scoreboard. They are 2-6-1 in the last nine games they've outshot their opponent. Some of that is score effects, but many of those are games the Stars simply dominated and lost the goalie battle.
What makes it more important is that Lehtonen is not a short-term piece. He is the highest salaried player on the team at the moment and under contract for three more years after this one.
They are built around him at the back end as much as they are around any forward. The return they need at the very least is league-average netminding, not bottom 10 as he's providing right now. In comparison, his numbers this year are worse than Darcy Kuemper's in Minnesota, and the Wild went looking for a goalie because of how bad their netminding situation was.
The million dollar question (or quite possibly more if we start looking at how a frustrated fanbase and no playoffs could affect attendance) is how do you fix it. There are several potential options laid out below and a poll to get a sense of how fans are feeling.
Option 1: Stay the course
For better or worse, Lehtonen is the player the Stars have hitched their wagon to at this point. His contract, which has three years remaining at a $5.9 million cap hit, makes him an immovable asset, and good goalies have off years. Even multiple Cup winners such as Jonathan Quick have had full down seasons and bounced back. The backup goalies haven't proven to be any better of an option, so playing Lehtonen, regardless of his current struggles, gives the Stars the best shot to win. And he showed signs of his old self in December - if he can get that form back, he can be the team's biggest strength.
Option 2: Play the existing backups more
The backup goalie combination of Anders Lindback and Jussi Rynnas has been an adventure at their best and pretty bad at their worst, but with the games Lehtonen is giving his club right now, they can't possibly be any worse. Losing playing time could motivate Lehtonen in a way little else motivates athletes or at least give him more practice time to work out whatever issues are plaguing him. Plus Lindback has shown flashes of above-average play. If he can get in a better rhythm, perhaps he can provide the saves Lehtonen is not.
Option 3: Bring up Jack Campbell
If the two backup goalies who have been given a shot aren't going to cut it, the answer could be the first-round pick who has been working his way up the Stars system for years. Sure, his 0.890 save percentage and 3.36 goals against average in the AHL are pedestrian at best, but he has been groomed to be the goalie of the future. If Lehtonen isn't going to be a good enough goalie for the present, perhaps it's time to look that way. And is the devil you know really better than the devil you don't?
Option 4: Trade for a backup-level goalie
Since neither Lindback nor Rynnas seem able to take the backup bull by the horns, the Stars could trade for someone who will be able to do so. As we saw at last year's trade deadline, backup goalies don't cost a huge amount in assets or contract, though if a goalie did not move the other way, it would create a bit of a logjam at the AHL level. A legitimate contender for playing time that the Stars actually trust could make the difference for both Lehtonen and the team's record.
Option 5: Trade for a starting-caliber goalie
If Lehtonen's performance this season is more than just a blip on the radar, then the Stars need to find a goalie who can give them 50 starts a year of at least league-average play. They aren't the only team in the market for this - the Minnesota Wild already got their short-term solution in Devan Dubnyk - and starting goalies don't come cheap. But the Stars are entering their window of opportunity given the age and contract status of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Jason Spezza, so the team can't wait to see if Lehtonen gets his game back in order.