Over the years, Dallas has earned a reputation that feels a little like the ironic scepter of the scarlet letter. Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen have helped give way to infamous hashtags and harsh, observational soundbites. The best might be this one from Dimitri Filipovic: the most dangerous lead in sports is whatever the Dallas Stars are up by in that particular moment. And so it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut famously intoned.
The general criticism is sometimes a little superficial. The Score has posted two articles criticizing Dallas’ goaltending. One lazily looking at raw save percentage with no even strength distinctions. Another extrapolated Niemi’s zero save percentage night against Minnesota to once again highlight the problem with the netminding in big D.
Even the typically nuanced Sean McIndoe has used Dallas’ goaltending as a theme to identify the newfound pressure GM Jim Nill must now be facing.
On his broader point, McIndoe is right. Nill has helped contribute to producing the most expensive tandem in the NHL, with a $4.5M price tag on one underperforming goalie, and a $5.9M price tag on the other underperforming goalie. Netminding is ultimately a game of how much, not how, and to that end the cobalt gates the two Finns help guard is an aggressive failure.
But the popular criticisms over Dallas’ goaltending are right for the wrong reasons.
For example, Kari Lehtonen is a good even strength goaltender this season. He ranks 10th with an even strength save percentage of 93.4 percent among goalies with at least 500 minutes of ice time. Niemi ranks 26th out of 51 goaltenders, making him exactly average. When you include goals against per 60 minutes of even strength play, Kari’s numbers are even better; ranking 6th, just below Carey price at a 1.83 clip.
With such a dramatic difference between even strength play versus all situation play, Dallas' ignominious penalty kill helps "clarify" at least some of the problems.
You see similar results when comparing CA60.— Carolyn Wilke (@Classlicity) January 16, 2017
Basically, Lehtonen's an awful PK goalie (though the PK is still bad). Poor play sinks Niemi. pic.twitter.com/JTCkbmgoQ7
Niemi is seeing higher shot quality when on the PK while Lehtonen’s general quality of play helps sink the PK itself. To that end, it’s a brutal chicken and egg dilemma for Dallas.
Though this helps make sense of the general picture of Dallas’ problems in net, it doesn’t address the proverbial elephant in the room.
Since 2010 Dallas has averaged 20th place in team save percentage. During that time, Dallas has been buoyed by Kari Lehtonen. Below are the even strength save percentages and goals against per 60 for all of Dallas’ goaltenders since 2010. I left out Jussi Rynnas and Jack Campbell because they simply didn’t play enough.
The average even strength save percentage of a netminder since 2010 hovers just around (sometimes slightly above, sometimes slightly below) the 92 percent mark. For goals against per 60, the average hovers around the 2.15 mark (this season, the average is 2.20 GA60).
I didn’t tag any names because the numbers speak for themselves. Niemi and Lehtonen are the only ones with respectable save percentages. However, everyone else is not only below average in SV percentage, but well below average in GA per 60. Not only has Dallas failed to draft, sign, or develop a quality goaltender, they’ve been actively crippled by it.
Since that time, Dallas has signed names like Jhonas Enroth, Anders Lindback (a phantom cookie if you can guess which star he is), Dan Ellis, Cristopher Nihlstorp, Richard Bachman, Tim Thomas, and Andrew Raycroft.
The Lindback signing is probably the most interesting, because it’s one of the few times Mike Valley, Dallas’ former goaltending coach of seven seasons and current Director of Goalie Development, was interviewed for his thoughts.
The first thing we did with Lindback is we dissected all 27 games that he played in, that’s including playoffs. We looked at every single goal and started looking for patterns and came up with a nice document of where we need to get to, these are the things that need to change, these are the things that are great in your game. We have to get him playing really well, and I believe we can get him there.
When Dallas signed Lindback, he had one good season his rookie year in Nashville. Every other season was progressively worse, culminating in a performance that all but guaranteed Tampa Bay’s elimination in the 2013-2014 playoffs.
What was Valley and Dallas’ management looking at when they thought Lindback could reverse a career trend of complete mediocrity?
This theme of looking for reclamation projects has been present for years. Kari himself is often considered the flagship for what Dallas’ goalie development is capable of. But when Jack Campbell was selected, Dallas got tunnel vision over his admittedly amazing run for the US U18 team. However, the three years before that his save percentage averaged just 90.8 percent.
This season, Texas signed Landon Bow. Another goaltender who made a brilliant run in the WHL last season, but whose average save percentage in all of his previous seasons was 90.4 percent. This season, Bow sits at 89.4 percent in Cedar Park. Philippe Desrosiers at 89.3. And Maxime Lagace at 89.4 (to be fair, Texas has the worst PK in the league so just how much their numbers are affected by that is hard to say).
Campbell, however, is the most interesting story. He currently leads the AHL in wins for the Ontario Reign, and was selected to the AHL All Star game. He changed his jersey number for the game in honor of his new goalie coach.
As for what changed, his answer was quite simple:
“I had two great coaches in Dallas, Mike Valley and Jeff Reese,” he emphasized. “I really enjoyed working with those two guys. It’s just unfortunate that I didn’t get the consistency with them. I didn’t see them enough.”
Dallas has a hard enough time drafting anyone of quality. But it turns out, they haven’t been committed to developing one either.
Campbell's story reads less like a feel good movie of the week for Dallas fans, and more like a horror film of franchise practices.
Without knowing the habits behind closed doors, it's hard to speculate. I don't know that Dallas has intentionally looked for "reclamation projects". Nor is it out of the realm of possibility that one of them does, in fact, develop into a quality goaltender. But the fact remains, Dallas has experienced more misses than hits when drafting, signing, or developing quality goaltenders.
Unfortunately for Dallas fans, these misses are catching up to them in a palpable way with their season in the balance.