Goaltending has been a familiar refrain for the Dallas Stars this season. Really, it’s been an issue to some degree since Marty Turco left town after the 2009/2010 season. Fans have lamented the lack of a proven backup, the lack of talent on the farm, and now, the seeming lack of a True #1. The Stars have failed, goes the narrative, just look at the problem, and look at its duration.
In no season has that failure been more evident than this one. With the Stars seemingly poised to take a major step forward, it seemed like an upgrade between the pipes would be a no-brainer. There were even options in the marketplace. Brian Elliott got traded, Ben Bishop has been available forever, and that’s without getting into the tinfoil hat claims Henrik Lundqvist might quietly be on the block (or Marc-Andre Fleury). It’s easy to see that Jim Nill failed to fix a leak, and that the Stars are suffering as a result.
Easy, but wrong.
The most obvious analogy is the league-leading Montreal Canadiens. So far this season, Les Habs have paced the NHL to the tune of a 13-2-2 record (28 points). It’s a tremendous turnaround for a squad that failed to make the playoffs in 2015/2016, and the clear result of a concerted effort to get better during the offseason. Or is it?
Yes, the Canadiens swung big with the addition of Shea Weber, but doing so cost them PK Subban. Transformational, sure, but it’s not like they were fixing a hole. Similarly, moves for Alex Radulov and Al Montoya bolstered their offense and backup goaltending respectively, but neither could be mistaken for a major fix. The truth in their performance increase is far simpler: Carey Price got healthy.
Montreal is a team built around its star goaltender. When Price is right, Les Habs are among the league’s elite. When he’s not, they’re also-rans. While that may present as a structural flaw (why can’t they fix the goaltending?) it’s really just a product of playing in a cap league.
You pick what you’re good at, in other words.
Think about the defending Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins. They boast one of the league’s truly elite lineups: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris LeTang, Phil Kessel, but they also lean on the likes of David Perron, Nic Bonino, and Brian Rust. Yeah, there’s that championship to consider, but when Kessel started slowly, Letang got hurt, and Malkin scuffled they put together a fairly middling run of play. They didn’t really turn into The Champs until the calendar turned.
The Pens are top-heavy. They’ve got the best top-end talent (non Seguin-Benn category) in the NHL, and when it’s clicking they’re among the very best teams in recent memory. That’s their identity; it’s how they’re built. Management has clearly decided the clearest path to success is to overload the top six and hope for a combination of injury luck and useful surprises throughout the rest of the roster, and twice since 2008/2009 they’ve hit the jackpot.
The Chicago Blackhawks have made a similar gamble with their defense. Outside of Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith, can you name another defender on their roster? Niklas Hjalmarsson probably deserves more credit than he gets, but after that it’s Trevor Van Riemsdyk and Michal Rozsival. Imagine, for a moment, how nasty things would get without Keith’s quality half hour every night (31:28 ATOI during last year’s playoff loss).
Again, it’s not an oversight. By playing with three defenders the Hawks are able to account for Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Marian Hossa’s Contract. The strategy has produced three big wins, but it’s also seen the team jettison the likes of Teuvo Teravainen, Patrick Sharp, Brandon Saad, and Stephen Johns for a relative pittance. It helps to find the occasional Artem Anisimov along the way, but there are non-far-fetched scenarios in which the Hawks become a no good/very bad team.
What if the Stars are playing a similar game?
To improve in net the Stars would likely need to sacrifice assets in a trade and dollars against the cap. Think about the Sharp deal. Ben Bishop might make sense in a vacuum, but what if the Stars have to ditch Julius Honka or a similar prospect plus the likes of Cody Eakin or Radek Faksa as a cost of jettisoning one of their current netminders? Furthermore, to what degree are you willing to screw up the current cap (aligned perfectly for a big Seguin extension) to fix the net?
To be clear, goaltending is a problem. The Stars aren’t going to amount to much with .898 SV% goaltending, but the Stars can win with what they got last year — .905 SV% (Niemi) / .906 SV% (Lehtonen). That’s how they’re built. That’s their flaw. Two or three extra saves a night got the team to within one game of the Conference Final. That’s a successful season.
The Stars have four significant forwards currently on IR (Mattias Janmark, Patrick Sharp, Jiri Hudler, Ales Hemsky), with two more (Jason Spezza, Cody Eakin) just now back in the lineup. If you want a culprit for the team’s struggles, look no further. The Stars were built in a particular way, around the depth and strength of their offense, then lost two full lines (more if you include Patrick Eaves’ brief injury) worth of players. No team in the league could survive such concentrated misery.
If anything, the fact the Stars are competitive at all is a testament to the roster Nill and company have created, not an indictment of problems they decided not to solve.