The third year is the one that got me. Honestly, it was like flipping a switch. One minute, I found myself shrugging, taking a few minor leaps to make sense of the Dallas Stars' decision to pursue Antti Niemi's rights just prior to free agency. The next minute, I was shaking my head, stunned at how subtle the whole thing looked. In offering Niemi a third year, the Dallas Stars had, quietly, given up on Jack Campbell.
Take the years out for a moment and the deal makes sense. Dallas is a team entering its competitive window, not one chasing past glories. Not only that, but the Stars could actually be quite close. Poor goaltending kept last year's roster from the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It undermined the offense, and as Erin covered in excellent depth, the Stars' generosity between the pipes obscured a series of major improvements across the team's beleaguered blue line. How far could this group have gone with Anaheim's draw? If you're one position away, make a splash, get it fixed.
In that light Niemi specifically made sense. No, not his human-interest historical connection to incumbent starter Kari Lehtonen, nor even the fact he won a Cup with the Blackhawks in 2009-2010. Instead, I was thrilled to see the sort of unwavering competence (Niemi's worst single-season save percentage since becoming an NHL starter is .912 while is best is .920) that might fix the Stars glaring short-term need without adjusting the organization's long-term path. In plainer terms he was boring, the perfect blend of helpful (should Kari falter) and replaceable (should Kari recover).
The replaceable part pulls in a personal bias of mine. I watched a lot of the Texas Stars' 2013-14 Calder-Cup winning season. I've watched a lot of other seasons as well, but that team holds a particularly warm place in my heart. Brett Ritchie scored 22 goals that season (including four on Mike Modano Night), Colton Sceviour put up 63 points in 54 games, Curtis McKenzie won rookie of the year, and Travis Morin was the league MVP and leading scorer. Defensively, Jyrki Jokipakka and Jamie Oleksiak both seemed to emerge as NHL-ready prospects, Patrik Nemeth went ahead and made the move to Dallas, and we even enjoyed three games from John Klingberg.
Then there was Jack Campbell.
Kari Lehtonen might not have been a problem in 2013-2014 (.919 Sv% / 2.42 GAA), but 22 games from Dan Ellis (.900 Sv% / 3.04 GAA) and Tim Thomas (.902 Sv% / 2.97 GAA) certainly were. The pair struggled to provide Lehtonen any sort of consistent relief, and kept the Stars handcuffed to their then-stellar starting netminder.
Meanwhile, in the AHL, Campbell appeared to be growing into his skates. In 16 games of action for the eventual Calder Cup champions, the former first-rounder would post a .942 save percentage and 1.49 GAA split. During that stretch he was more likely to shutout the opposition (four times) than concede more than two goals (three times). In person he looked composed, athletic, and confident. Yes, injuries were a season-long issue, but nobody was expecting Campbell to play 60+ games. All the Stars really needed was better than a 7-10-1-1 record, and they had every right to expect their first round pick was finally ready to be that guy. Which is about when the trouble started.
That summer, the Stars made a pair of uninspiring moves to shore up their backup situation (Anders Lindback and Jussi Rynnas). Both felt like moves to create an opportunity for Campbell. Sure, either reclamation project could have worked out, but it was just as likely the Stars were hoping Campbell would force a roster move with the quality of his play. The Stars would have faced little serious consequence sending both Lindback and Rynnas down, all they needed was a reason to pull the trigger.
Instead of that reason, they got more injuries and inconsistency from Campbell. From October through January, Campbell was an unqualified disaster in net. By the new year, Dallas' wonderboy had won exactly three games, sported an ugly .890 save percentage, 3.36 GAA line, and had spent time rediscovering his game in the ECHL. The biggest indictment of his play was the fact Campbell was unable to supplant the floundering Lindback/Rynnas duo up in Dallas.
I promise this is swinging back to Antti Niemi's contract.
Had the season ended in February, the Stars' path forward would likely have been clear. Prospects of all sorts flame out all the time, and highly-touted goaltenders are especially tricky. Only, Jack Campbell had at least one twist left. Back with the Texas Stars, Campbell got back into the lineup and seemed to recapture some of his lost form. He began March with a four game winning streak and ended it with a .934 save percentage and 2.47 GAA. In April, he went undefeated, a perfect 6-0 with a .923 save percentage and 2.42 GAA. He also picked up a shutout in each month.
Captain Zero had returned, at least for a little while, and reignited debate over his future with the organization. Except maybe not, which is where we (finally, I know) get back to Antti Niemi. Even at two years, Niemi would have been a necessary evil. Without 60 or so stellar Lehtonen games in the bank, the Stars as currently constituted would be hard-pressed to make headway in an increasingly difficult Western Conference. With Campbell again in the position of needing to prove himself ready, Niemi provided almost all of the promise of options like Eddie Lack or Cam Talbot without the same contractual burdens.
At three years, everything changes. The Stars now have a $10 million cap hit tied into their goaltending tandem through the end of the 2017-2018 season. They've only just acquired Niemi, and Lehtonen's value is at an all-time low. Short of a buy-out or the Stars eating a healthy chunk of contract, neither is likely to go anywhere anytime soon.
Which mean the scenarios for Jack Campbell reaching the NHL as a Dallas Star get complicated. Assume for a moment his ECHL wakeup call was a final turn, and March/April Jack is the guy we get next season. Do the Stars then bury $4.5 million of Antti Niemi in Cedar Park, or heaven forbid, Lehtonen? The other option would be to try and trade someone to make room, but what motivation would the rest of the league have to help Dallas out of a bind? A move in the final year of Lehtonen or Niemi's deal could make some sense, but would require Campbell spending two more seasons as an apprentice.
Or the Stars believe that Campbell is more .900 than .940 and unlikely to shake off either the injuries or inconsistencies that have limited him thus far. In that case, having long term cover in the form of predictable Niemi becomes a much more sensible play. It's just a sad case, and one you hate to see made against a 23-year old goaltender. It's also why the third year for Niemi is such a bummer. That year means Stars fans have to hope for one of a bad trade, a buy-out, or a failed prospect.