If the NHL draft is Let's Make a Deal, then the opening of Free Agency on July 1st is Shop ‘til You Drop for NHL fans. Freed from the bothersome constraints of what is "actually possible to do," we can theorize about our team's improvement, and we can invoke almost any names we want in order to effect said improvement. Basically, we are playing mash with our favorite hockey teams, and we get to determine our magic number.
The great thing about the salary cap is that for all it cost us to see it implemented, it is at least some small impetus for more trades to happen, and who doesn't love trades? Nobody, that's who! A lot of NHL GMs demonstrably possess eyes with a tendency to outgrow their respective salary cap stomachs, and summer is when those same GMs suddenly start sharing their new CrossFit workouts on Facebook. If you are one of the GMs already in shape, that means opportunity. One man's fat is another man's second-pairing defenseman, as Sophocles is rumored* to have said.
*This is a good example of how accurate a lot of the rumors you will hear leading up to free agency will be. The Stars are talking to Milan Lucic! Steven Stamkos is already renting an Airbnb for south Detroit! Boston is literally throwing literal rocks at Jacob Trouba's literal window, and as soon as he sticks his darn head out to see what's going on, there is a 700lb boombox ready to be catapulted into Don Sweeny's adjoining suite.
Lots of things can happen on July 1, and some of them do. The Stars haven't really made big free agency moves during Jim Nill's tenure—Ales Hemsky's three-year deal is his biggest UFA contract awarded to date, I think—though that's at least partly due to the fact that they haven't really needed to. This team has been building something for a while now, and large contracts to available contractors have not been their bricks of choice for this team that finished atop the West last season.
Still, each year is different. Teams' situations fluctuate and the players on the market change, and woe be to you, O General Manager, if you bring last year's knife to this summer's bazooka fight. GMs have to adapt, and Jim Nill has recently shown himself willing to wait in order to pounce on good deals. When exactly those deals might become available is still murky, but July 1st will be the first spotlight of clarity we'll get.
There are a lot of ways things could shake out for Dallas this summer, but on the eve of the eve of free agency, let's see if we can emulate Jim Nill and put together plans A, B and C for the Stars' situation. Taylor already laid out the cap situation, and I'm working with a mental bucket o' cash of around $10 million after Oleksiak and Nichushkin get re-upped. That number is based on my Secret RFA Money Dollars Algorithm that I will never share with anyone, so you know it must be really accurate.
To cover a few different bases, I've laid out three ways things could shake out in each area of the team. Today, we'll go over the goalies. Remember that these are all related—Nill probably won't acquire and extend Ben Bishop while also giving Stamkos $80 million—but also remember that we are fans; therefore, it's not important that we get all the sundry details exactly right. What is important is that we get upset at each other, insult opinions different from our own, and argue a whole danged lot. Please don't let me down. (I may not have quoted the community standards quite right there, but I'm sure I came close.)
Today: Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen
Scenario 1: The "Never Again" Plan
Dallas had a fabulous season thanks in large part to Antti Niemi's playing like a decent NHL goaltender for half of the season. In the playoffs, the Stars were suddenly given the distasteful option of playing Niemi's vaudevillianly hapless twin or starting Kari "2014" Lehtonen. Lehtonen had a few very fine games, and while even Roberto Luongo has laid some eggs over his playoff career, Lehtonen's reputation is rather unfortunately established at this point.
Thus, the Stars have to get a Proven Veteran Goaltender, again. Yeah, I know they did that last year, but this time around they need a really Proven Veteran, and that means Bishop or Fleury. No half measures, boys. This 109-point team can't afford to throw a jersey on hope and watch it skate out between the pipes again this postseason. That means you need Ben Bishop or Marc-Andre Fleury, period.
Yes, Bishop costs a ton, is only signed for this year, and isn't really in a position where Tampa has to move him, yet. Sure, Fleury is the same age that Lehtonen and Niemi were last summer; sure, Fleury has a worse playoff 5v5 SV% than Lehtonen and Niemi; but did we mention that both of these are Proven Veteran Goaltenders? Injuries and/or a hot streak from rookies relegated Fleury and Bishop to the bench (or IR) for these two vets, but if Dallas were able to acquire either, it's safe to say most fans would breathe more easily come April 2017.
It would cost a lot. You know your favorite three prospects? One of them (at least) is gone, and probably Oleksiak and some draft picks and some retained salary as well. But still, we're trying to make this team better, and we're all pretty confident that Bishop and Fleury would do that, right? Right. Problem solved. (Just don't check the bank balance until next Friday, okay honey?)
Scenario 2: The "The Toronto Effect Is a Market Inefficiency" Plan
James Reimer is a good goaltender, so far. Since 2010, his 5v5 Sv%% of 92.55 outpaces that of Bishop (92.53), Fleury (92.22), Lehtonen (92.31) and Niemi (92.43). He's played 215 games in that span, which, while nowhere near Fleury's 479, is still in line with Ben Bishop's 231.
If we're talking playoffs, he's also at the top of this arbitrary five-goalie heap with a 93.75 Sv% at evens. For context, Bishop is at 93.22, while Fleury (91.12) Niemi (91.72) and Lehtonen (91.picklechips) are all a ways back. Reimer has been a good goalie, and while he's battled some injuries and had some struggles of his own at times, he certainly appears to be at the top of the free agent goalie heap.
The caveat to the 28-year-old Reimer's playoff numbers, of course, is that he's only played in eight such games—seven of which came in a certain series against Boston that Leafs fans are working to expunge from our collective memories with those laser pen things from Men in Black. Reimer did well on a bad team in one series, but is that the sort of playoff success you're willing to bet, say, four years, $20 million, and two years of retained salary for your former goalie on? That would have been strikingly similar to Lehtonen's situation right after 2014. (Sorry)
Reimer does have the advantage of costing nothing but money, so that is certainly attractive if you're less inclined to part with one or two of Ritchie, Backman, Shore, Dickinson or Honka(!) in a Fleury or Bishop deal. Of course, you then have to figure out how to get rid of a goalie in a separate trade, so maybe one of those assets ends up being lost after all. Do you remember what it was like when the Stars had all the good goalies? That was nice.
Scenario 3: Stand Pat, or the "Hold Onto Your Butts" Plan
One thing I haven't mentioned is that, by individual playoff seasons among the aforementioned five goalies, Antti Niemi has the first- and third-best. His 2012-13 5v5 save percentage of 94.29 was pristine, as was his 93.97 number the postseason prior. Admittedly, these are the same numbers we looked at to console ourselves last offseason, and, ah, things went differently than we had hoped.
For all the scoffing most pundits (and fans) would do if the Stars indeed went into the season with the same goalie duo, it's not the worst thing that could happen. (That would be giant red ants wielding paintball guns with unlimited ammo, obviously.) No, the Stars won 50 games despite Niemi's falling off a cliff last year, and there is every chance that another goalie option would become available as the season wanes. Craig Anderson? Steve Mason? These are the type of not-terrible choices that could become available as the season progresses, and the cost would be more than manageable for Dallas if those teams were also looking to tank sooner rather than later.
The other benefit of not making a move now is that Dallas would then have almost unlimited flexibility next offseason. Now I know that sounds like I'm okay with "wasting" another year and all that, but let's just take it as read that none of us want the Stars to do anything other than win a Cup this year. From Craig the Nominal Office Hockey Guy to Kimberly the Hockey Genius to Jim Nill himself, everyone wants the Stars to do well. Jim Nill is not going to sit around if the goalies are dragging the team down. That said, Jim Nill probably isn't going to make a foolish move now that will hurt the team down the road, either.
While the team can afford a buyout now, I just don't see Jim Nill eating a dead cap hit for four years. It seems far more likely to me that Nill will, if Kari and Niemi are truly immovable next summer, proceed with a buyout at that point while exposing the other one to an expansion draft. (Even then though, I'd still look for Nill to get creative in order to unload one of the goalies while retaining some salary.)
And who knows? Maybe the team stands pat and Niemi provides Legendary Average Goaltending for more of the season while Kari has enough flashes of decency to keep the team humming along. Maybe Niemi puts up Fine Goaltending behind a new-look defense (and Tyler Seguin) and things work out. That could, literally, happen. So could almost anything else. Which plan appeals to you will depend on how much value you think each particular goaltender will provide relative to what he will cost. Personally, I'm okay with dealing good prospects if the return is obviously great. Would I deal Julius Honka for one year of Bishop? I don't think so, but what if that wins Dallas a cup? Those are the hypotheticals that really push my disparate opinions of players and prospects and team-building strategies to the wall. Once again, I find myself thankful that I am not Jim Nill. For this weekend, at least.
(All numbers from Corsica.hockey)