There are a fair number of question marks for the Dallas Stars this season as they prepare to enter training camp this week, and the most pressing of those is probably just what the heck they plan to do with the goalies.
After all, the Stars surprised many this summer when they signed Antti Niemi to a three-year contract with an average annual value of $4.5 million while still retaining the services of Kari Lehtonen, who has three years and a cap hit of $5.9 million per season remaining on his contract. That's a lot of money to spend on goaltending and setting up a platoon of two veterans rather than the traditional starter-backup system.
To be fair, there are distinct reasons the Stars went this route. Goaltending wasn't the only problem that kept the team from returning to the playoffs last season, but it was the most significant one. Lehtonen and the backup trio of Anders Lindback, Jussi Rynnas and Jhonas Enroth were average at best and terrible at worst, putting up numbers on par with the worst teams in the league.
The Stars attempted to address the problem from multiple angles. They brought a new voice into the goalie coaching staff in Jeff Reese while retaining the services of Mike Valley to work with goalie development. They shuffled some pieces on defense to further tighten up a unit that finished the season strong after an awful first few months. And, obviously, they brought in Niemi to push Lehtonen for playing time and to ideally provide a steady, if not spectacular, presence in net for...some portion of the season.
How big that portion works out to be is anyone's guess right now, and a fairly unfamiliar face for Stars fans, who have entered the season with a steady goalie presence in net since the acquisition of Ed Belfour almost 20 years ago. From Belfour to Marty Turco and then Lehtonen, the goalie who (barring injury) would start the majority of the games has never been in question.
There is one team Stars fans can look at to see how a modern platoon system usually works - last season's Calgary Flames. With the combined services of Jonas Hiller (average annual value $4.5 million) and Karri Ramo (AAV $2.75 million last season, $3.8 million this season), the Flames almost split the starts and rode the hotter hand all the way to the second round of the playoffs.
Hiller played in decidedly more games - 52 to Ramo's 33 - but the starts were split 44 to 32 for Hiller (with young Finnish goalie Joni Ortio picking up six starts when injury struck). Hiller's 0.918 save percentage was slightly better than Ramo's 0.912, but either would have been welcome on last season's Stars. Both faced about 2.5 fewer shots per game than Lehtonen's 28.8, though it should be noted the Flames didn't produce many chances of their own and were therefore negative in the possession statistics battle most nights while the Stars were on the positive end.
It took the Flames long to get a a "win and stay in" system rolling. Hiller started the first game last season and lost an average, though not horrible, start to the Vancouver Canucks. Ramo had and outstanding start the next night to defeat Edmonton, but Hiller came back in net for third game for another solid but losing effort. Ramo was back for another winning start after that, and the two rotated starts until the end of October, when Hiller had a 0.947 save percentage in a shootout loss to the Canadiens.
Hiller started the next four games, including a somewhat shaky loss, but Ramo was also shaky when he returned, getting pulled in an eventual win over the Panthers. Hiller got another three starts with a 2-1 record but low save percentages, then Ramo came back in and won. At this stretch of the season, Hiller was a de facto starter (playing despite disappointing single game peformances) and Ramo an oft-used backup, playing one of every 3-4 starts.
That trend continued through December and January, though it should be noted Ramo went through a mumps scare (and really, who didn't last season?) as well as an injury that knocked him out of the lineup for much of January.
The true platoon usage picked up in February as Hiller started to struggle. Ramo made 16 starts - half of his total for the season - from Feb. 14 on, a span of 27 games for the Flames. Hiller put up decent underlying numbers in this span but wasn't able to string wins together until late March and early April, when he took over as a more full-time starter again.
In the playoffs, Hiller was the go-to-guy for most of the series against the Canucks, but was pulled early in the decisive Game 6, and Ramo played most of the series against the Ducks after Hiller got pulled early in Game 1.
There's a lot of ups and downs in there, but what are the lessons Stars fans can take?
- There will probably be a primary starter, though whether that is Lehtonen or Niemi has yet to be determined. While the Flames weren't afraid to go to Ramo last season, especially as the year went on, when Hiller was stringing wins together, he was the man who started the next game regardless of Ramo's recent performances.
- Injuries are inevitable, so even having a very experienced platoon doesn't mean Jack Campbell won't get another chance to show his stuff at the NHL level.
- With a second starter on the bench, coaches are often tempted to have a short leash, especially in key games. Hiller was yanked seven minutes into Game 6 against Vancouver and 22 minutes into Game 1 of the second round, and there were other relatively quick pulls earlier in the season for Ramo.
- Bad statistical performances don't necessarily mean the other goalie will start the next game, especially if that performance comes from the more trusted goalie.
In the Flames system, upon close examination, there was a true starter (Hiller) and a very trusted backup (Ramo). Will the Stars go that route or a true "play well and play again" platoon system? Only time will tell. It will be very interesting to watch the usage patterns early in the season to look for clues.