For the moment, at least, the Dallas Stars look like they plan to head into the 2015-16 season with the same defense they ended 2014-15 with.
That's worrisome to many. After all, the Stars finished fourth worst in goals against last season, ahead of the unholy trinity of the Coyotes, Sabres and Oilers. That's not just bad, that's pretty darn awful.
While they're not changing the defense for the moment, they have made a significant move in goal, bringing in veteran Finnish netminder Antti Niemi to form a platoon system with incumbent Kari Lehtonen in an attempt to find some goalie that will provide at least average goaltending.
Niemi did not seem like the obvious target from the beginning. The numbers he put up last season with the San Jose Sharks were pretty average, and he was due (and received) a fairly sizeable contract extension. All that said, the type of performance he provided last season - again, generally a down one by his standards - was exactly what the Stars could have used last year.
We've written time and time again that the Stars would have been fine last season with just average goaltending, and Niemi provided pretty much that. There were 48 goalies who played the equivalent of at least 20 games last season, and Niemi was 24th in save percentage at 0.9144. Adjusted for difficulty of the save, Niemi was 23rd.
Lehtonen, for the record, was 43rd in overall save percentage and 40th in adjusted save percentage. Since that's the case, how do their 2014-15 seasons compare on a deeper level?
Let's start out looking at the entire season. All the statistics are pulled from War-on-Ice.com, and the manpower situations are noted in the row title.
All of these categories are fairly self-explanatory. The last two rows deal with goals against and save percentage when the opponent's net is empty and that team is pressing for a tying goal late in a game.
Niemi had a slightly below average year by his standards but, as mentioned above, average among all starting goalies in the league. How many times last season did we ask the Stars goalie, whoever he was that game, to give them average goaltending? Just think of how different the year could have been if Lehtonen allowed 25-30 fewer goals over the course of a season.
And really... look at those numbers with the empty net. at the other end. Niemi was stellar while Lehtonen fell apart when the pressure was on. It's nearly impossible to quantify what "that save" looks like when we talk about backbreaking goals, but having at least a decent save percentage in the most important situations would be a good start.
What stands out is that while facing a very similar number of shots, Niemi was better in every single category except on the penalty kill. Again, it's nothing to write home about, but with the Stars ability to score goals, it could make a significant difference in the number of wins.
But wait, I hear you asking, those numbers include the Stars defense when it was a complete tire fire at the beginning of the year. Surely that drug down the comparative numbers for Lehtonen in this case.
We'll have an in-depth look at the Stars defensive play versus the Sharks group soon, but in order to account for the fact that the Stars defense was, indeed, quite problematic early in the season, let's eliminate that entire stretch from the comparison.
Below are the statistics for Lehtonen and Niemi from January 1, 2015, until the end of the season.
As the Stars defense got better (trust me on this for the moment - the shot attempt numbers do back it up as well), Lehtonen got markedly worse. That slide shows up all over his statistics, particularly in overall save percentage and empty-net save percentage.
Seven empty net goals against in 34 games. That's one every five games or so as the team in front of him did everything they could to try and claw back into the race.
Niemi, meanwhile, took the biggest hit on the penalty kill. Without breaking down the Sharks, it's tough to tell if that is a problem on his part or if opponents got a good scout on San Jose's unit and were able to design plays to cut through the box with ease. From the goals they gave up to the Stars, the latter is a distinct possibility. His 5 v 5 save percentage remained relatively constant, however, which is a good sign on a San Jose team that had some serious problems.
What this all leads to is why the Stars were willing to pay, and perhaps overpay, Niemi. A down year for him in front of a pretty porous Sharks defense was not only significantly better than Lehtonen's campaign, but it may have been enough to get the Stars in the playoffs without any change. And importantly, he didn't melt down in the clutch, whether that was measured over the course of a game or season.
There are reasons to expect Lehtonen can improve this season. A new goalie coach may be able to give him a fresh slate and go back to the basics that made him successful in the first place, and a strong push from Niemi could motivate him in a way he hasn't been since he was traded to Dallas.
But the Stars are in a position to pay for some very expensive insurance, and that's exactly what they've got in Niemi.