The Dallas Stars need goaltending help.
Regardless of how you feel about Kari Lehtonen's ability to bounce back, they have no viable option to wear the baseball cap next year. Jack Campbell struggled with injury and poor play and should not be expected to make the leap to the big club next year. All of this leads back to the first sentence - the Stars need help in the blue paint.
If you believe the hype, there were three main goalie targets this offseason: Robin Lehner, Cam Talbot, and Eddie Lack.
Robin Lehner has been traded. Cam Talbot is expensive to acquire and unproven. Eddie Lack is still viable, but with all of the teams needing goalies this year the trade market has likely shifted in favor of the seller.
Over the last forever-number of years, every offseason the Stars have traded for or acquired a goalie like Anders Lindback, Dan Ellis, or the dreaded and feared Andrew Raycroft to back up Kari Lehtonen. Every year, the fans talk themselves into the new player saying, "Well Lindback is a giant, right? Surely he is awesome at tending goal." And every year, midway through the season, Lehtonen has played 25 games in a row because benching him means an automatic loss.
Last season, the Stars did a goalie swap (and third round pick) for new backup Jhonas Enroth. He held up well down the stretch, just long enough to give Stars' fans hope. Then word came out that he wanted to test the market. Enroth wants to be a full time starter, and he might be justified in thinking he won't get that chance in Dallas.
What if this year is the same story? What if the Stars are going to sign another veteran to play behind Lehtonen, pushing their long-term solution one more year into the future? What if the 2015-2016 knight in shining armor is Antti Niemi?
Niemi has won a cup, has played on some great teams, and has generally been reliable in net posting a career save percentage of 91.6 percent. In his seven NHL seasons, his best save percentage is 92.4 percent, and his worst was his rookie year 91.2 percent. His entire career, he has kept out between 91.2-92.4 percent. While no one will mistake him for Carey Price, those are very consistent numbers.
Before everyone gets upset, let's think about this logically. Last year, Lehtonen saved 9 out of every 10 shots he faced (90.2 percent to be exact). His performance last year has been beaten to death, but what are the next words out of everyone's mouth? "If the Stars would've had average goaltending..."
When Lehtonen struggles, and his backup's save percentage always starts with an 8, the whole situation can spiral out of control. Lehtonen gets no relief, no one pushing him. No time to reset mentally. "Well, Kari, sorry but you have to go again. Lindback gave up 21 goals last time we put him in there."
Niemi may not win a Vezina, but his career arc says he is reliable and consistent. Last year he saved 91.4 percent of shots against playing behind a tire fire in San Jose. He is only 31 years old, and with the longer careers of goalies, there is no indication he is at the end of his shelf life.
What would the the Stars getting?
The Stars are getting a league average goaltender. Consistent, young(ish), proven, and affordable. What more could the Stars ask for from a backup? The best feature of Niemi, aside from his solid numbers throughout his career, is the fact that the Stars do not have to trade for him in a sellers market.
Niemi currently makes $3.2 million, and his next contract will be in that range. I would expect two years at $2.5-$3 million per season. He won't get the term because of his lukewarm performance last year (still better than Lehtonen), and he won't get the money because the teams that really need goalies are trading for them. If the Stars will fight the urge of the pack-mentality, they may find Niemi in the bargain bin.
Long term, Niemi is a conundrum wrapped in an enigma. At 31, he could be a reliable goalie for five more years. At 31, he could decline to a 90.9 save percentage in two years, at which point the Stars could choose not to re-sign him. Niemi gives the Stars flexibility. He won't burn the them in the short term, gives them an option to part ways in the mid-term, and could feasibly play five more years in victory green.
Overall, this feels like the same story repackaged every off season for a guy in a different sweater. However, keep in mind this is not Lindback (a backup) or Ellis (essentially a backup). Niemi has played consistent hockey his entire career, and he won a cup in Chicago. He has played under lights much brighter than the American Airlines Center and shown through. Antti Niemi may not be the sexy answer, but he could be a mid-term solution.
All images courtesy of Getty and USA Today-Sports.