Where to begin?
Most statistical measures showed the 2014-15 Dallas Stars to be a team let down by the guy in funny equipment. Whether it was a down year by Kari Lehtonen, unreliable backup goaltending, or both, it was not a good showing for the Dallas goalies. Save percentage can be tied to a number of different factors, but 82 games of "factors" had the Dallas save percentage at 29th out of 30. Ouch.
There was a front-end loaded goalie class in the 2015 offseason. Names like Robin Lehner, Cam Talbot, and Eddie Lack were probably looking for new homes, and Stars' fans everywhere were sure the team would snatch one of them up.
In traditional Jim Nill-ian fashion, he let the market settle. What was left after the spending (and trading) spree, was an established veteran in his early thirties. A guy named Antti Niemi.
*You can find Niemi's UFA Preview here
The signing of Niemi in particular tells the fans a lot about how Jim Nill views his club.
The problem last year was like a series of dominos. (1) Lehtonen was terrible, (2) backups were worse, (3) Lehtonen played anyway (4) Lehtonen got tired (5) Lehtonen got worse.
Let's take a look at the same situation with Niemi. (1) Lehtonen is terrible, (2) Niemi replaces him in the middle of the game, (3) Niemi starts the next game. (4) Lehtonen gets the start after; hoping to prove himself, (5) both guys are rested.
This was a win-now move. Lehner, Talbot, and Lack were all intriguing because they may not be polished yet, but their brief history in the league tells us that they have a future. Niemi and Lehtonen are the same goalie. They are both in their mid-early thirties, they are both from Finland, and they are both good goalies now with limited upside. Nill sacrificing long term upside for steadiness in the near term is a win-now move.
Nill has taken a "trust but verify" approach with Kari Lehtonen. This is not news to anyone, but the Stars have failed at the whole "backup goalie" thing for the better part of a decade. Signing a bonafide starter like Niemi allows Lehtonen to be truly pushed for his place in net on a nightly basis.
You have read those last two paragraphs a million times in the last 2 months. Game-to-game, how is Niemi going to affect the outcome of the season?
I picked up NHL16 on Tuesday, and like any good hockey fan, I started a season with Dallas. I got my roster all ready to go, brought up Stephen Johns and Julius Honka. I roster-bated for almost an hour, no lie. I played four games over the course of about four hours and got dumped 9-3 (I thought about returning the game), 5-2, 2-1, and 4-3. I absolutely could not figure out what was going on.
That is a silly example. But thinking back to last year, how many times did the Stars need some juice and couldn't find a performance equal to the moment? How many times did the Stars have three road games in four nights, and had no choice but to just take a loss on two of them because Lehtonen was exhausted? Those points matter in April.
At worst, Niemi is the best backup Lehtonen has ever had. At best, he is better than Lehtonen has been in three years. I am not here preaching that Niemi is the savior of a season that hasn't started, but he is theoretically exactly what this team needs.
The important thing to note about Niemi is his consistency, covered in his UFA preview piece seen above. He is a steady goalie. Two quality starting net minders is a luxury the Stars have never had, at least to this degree.
1A? 1B? Does it matter? Lehtonen and Niemi will probably end up splitting the starts 60-40, and both will have moments of brilliance. Both will bail the other out when the starter gives up three quick ones in the first period.
The rest Niemi allows Lehtonen (or visa versa) cannot be overstated. We all know about the Stars' abysmal record in back to back games over the last several years. On the second night, I would always bemoan Lindy Ruff saying, "I have seen this movie before! He can't play two nights in a row!" But really, what was Ruff supposed to do?
Having a 1A and 1B assures that regardless of the outcome, fatigue in net will never be a factor. All indications point to Niemi and Lehtonen forming a league average save percentage for the Stars. Isn't that all we wanted last year?
The value created by a proven commodity is something the Stars will have for the first time in a long time. No longer is the team hoping Richard Bachman can make the leap, or hoping Jack Campbell is ready, or hoping that Dan Ellis isn't terrible.
Goalie, when it is at either end of the performance bell curve, is the most important position on the ice. Bad goaltending can sink a season all by itself, as we saw live an in color last year. The Stars are asking more of their defense, and that's great, but in order to take the next step they need a goalie that can give them "that save". Niemi will get his chance, and I think he is just what the doctor ordered.
A lot has been said about how the Stars are spending a fortune on two goalies. But the upgrade at that position for this season was never going to be cheap.
Welcome to win-now mode.