There are some positions in sports that generally get too much of a share of the blame for a team's win-loss record. Quarterbacks in football, pitchers in baseball, and goalies in any sport tend to earn the fanbases' undying loyalty or wrath for things that are, in large part, built on the work of others.
After all, a pitcher like Clayton Kershaw may do everything in his power to be great but still end up with a 6-6 record when it comes time for an All-Star break. Quarterbacks who will not be named can lead a team on an epic comeback only to have a receiver muff a ball on what could have been a game-winning drive and be thought of as a choker. On the flip side, it only takes one perfect game at the opportune moment or a single tight spiral to the back corner of the end zone to be a legend.
The reality is the vast majority of players at these positions of high impact aren't significantly more important than any of their talented teammates. They all impact only a single portion of the game, after all, and most performances on the big portion of the Bell curve of average can be matched in importance by others at different positions.
Sometimes, things go horribly wrong or ridiculously right for long stretches at these positions, and in those cases, those positions become by far the most important one of a team. A pitcher with a 1.53 ERA or a quarterback who develops chronic butterfingers is another beast entirely.
That's where the Dallas Stars found themselves last year. Built as an offensive juggernaut, they needed a decent season from Kari Lehtonen if they wanted to repeat their run to the playoffs.
And Lehtonen, quite frankly, was bad. Maybe even awful. We've documented several times just how much he struggled, with a 0.9035 save percentage for the season and a 0.8989 from January 1 onward. His goals against average was among the worst of his career, and he was in company with Anton Khudobin, Cam Ward and Mike Smith at the bottom of the goaltending statistics pile.
He got worse as the defense in front of him got better as well. The Stars were right about average in terms of shots and scoring chances allowed after Jan. 1 but 29th in goals allowed. In all, it was enough to torpedo the rest of the team's best efforts to climb back into the uber-competitive Western Conference.
As Marcus wrote earlier today, the Stars very clearly signaled they believe they are in win-now mode with the acquisition of Antti Niemi to back up/challenge Kari Lehtonen for a starting position. The Stars spent a significant chunk of cap space and contract years to sign the free agent goalie out of San Jose precisely because they found themselves in a position where goaltending was having a disproportionate impact on the team last year, and they couldn't get themselves of that rabbit hole.
That's why Niemi and Lehtonen share the top spot on this year's player rankings. They aren't the most talented players on this team, the most impressive to watch or the emotional heart and soul. They aren't the players likely to end up on an All-Star team or earn individual trophies.
But with this particular group and the problems that undid them last season, they are the place where the most improvement is imperative for team success. There's a lot riding on the shoulders of the goaltending, particularly that of Lehtonen since he's the incumbent.
The good news is the Stars don't need outstanding or even very good. Lehtonen doesn't even have to match the better part of his career, which happened after he was traded to Dallas and got serious about fitness. He just has to be at his career average - a 0.912 save percentage and 2.70 GAA would do this team just fine.
There's also good reason to think that's possible. The Stars have hinted repeatedly that Lehtonen played through some injuries last season because the team didn't trust the two-headed backup goalie monster of Jussi Rynnas and Anders Lindback. He also clearly played when fatigued because of those problems, and even the acquisition of Jhonas Enroth late in the season didn't solve those problems, as Enroth took probably too long to settle in. At 31, turning 32 in November, he's still well in the prime of a career for a goalie.
Jeff Reese, the Stars new goalie coach, could also prove helpful. Mike Valley unquestionably had some success with Lehtonen during their tenure together, but new voices are often helpful when working through mental and physical roadblocks. Competition from Niemi could also bring out the best as both men push for more playing time through their performance.
Lehtonen is a major part of this team for the long haul, with three years at an average annual value of $5.9 million remaining on his contract. But more than that, he could easily be the solution to the problem he created with his poor performance last season, a problem big enough that it swamped every positive thing the team did in front of him from December onward.
The magnitude of the problem that Lehtonen had last season and the disproportionate effect it had on the Stars are why he and Niemi end up at the top of this list. The Stars don't care how the problem gets solved, whether that's a 60-40 split or one of the Finns channeling his international rival in Henrik Lundqvist.
But if this team has any hope of returning to the playoffs, one of those men must provide at least an average performance. It may not sound like a lot to ask, but it was something that escaped the Stars last season and eventually cost them the playoffs.