The Dallas Stars said goodbye to several NHL players this offseason via free agency. Fan-favorite Antoine Roussel signed a four-year deal worth $12 million with the Vancouver Canucks, fan-unfavorite Greg Pateryn signed for $6.75 million over three years with the Minnesota Wild, and steady veteran Dan Hamhuis signed with the Nashville Predators for two years for $2.5 million.
But there is still one player whom the Stars replaced that hasn’t found a new home yet: goaltender Kari Lehtonen. While at times a rather divisive player in the fanbase, Lehtonen seemed like a lock to sign a team-friendly extension throughout the season. But then starting goaltender Ben Bishop was injured, the Stars went on an eight-game losing streak, and the team decided to part ways with Lehtonen after nearly a decade of service to the franchise.
This, of course, brings us to the subject of today’s topic — why hasn’t a team signed Kari Lehtonen yet this offseason? To answer this, it’s important that we first look at what other UFA goaltenders signed contracts this offseason:
(All stats courtesy of Hockey Reference)
When it comes to statistics, the only outlier is Carter Hutton, who stood far above his fellow UFA class. That’s why he was rewarded a three-year contract despite already being 32 years old, although his AAV is a bit lower in return for the security.
Otherwise, we have several groupings of players in terms of save percentage. Anton Khudobin and Jonathan Bernier are both at .913%, Robin Lehner, Jaroslav Halak, Cam Ward, and Steve Mason at around .907%, Petr Mrazek at .902%, and Chad Johnson at .891%.
It’s worth noting that Lehner and Johnson both played for the Buffalo Sabres, the team that came in 31st in the standings last season, and have relatively poor stats because of it. Lehner has a .920% the previous year with Buffalo and Johnson was .910% with the Calgary Flames. Also of note is that Mrazek’s were just as abysmal as Johnson’s after being traded to the Philadelphia Flyers (.891%), a playoff team, from the Detroit Red Wings (.910), a non-playoff team.
With that said, where does Kari Lehtonen stand among the pack?
Would you look at that? Lehtonen is fourth among the list, and his stats are near identical to his replacement, Khudobin, who sits at the top of the non-Hutton goaltenders. If we want to compare the two, as well as Bernier directly, we could try and decipher something from the wins column. We could also look at a stat called Goal Point Shares (GPS), which is an estimate of the number of points a goaltender earns due to his play in goal. Bernier leads the trio with a GPS of 6.2, followed by Lehtonen at 5.3, and finally Khudoblin at 5.0
Furthermore, keep in mind that Lehtonen’s stats here include the eight-game losing streak that was a franchise record (and not of the fun kind). As I noted back in Lehtonen’s season grade, his SV% before Bishop’s injury was .919%, and he had a .965% in his first three starts after the fact. So if we’re willing to put an asterisk next to Lehner and Johnson’s stats for being on an awful Buffalo team, it’s worth putting one next to Lehtonen for having to backstop a not-stellar Stars team in March.
So if Lehtonen was arguably the best goalie this offseason not named Carter Hutton, then why is he still unsigned? First of all, it’s worth noting that unlike other positions, there are much, much fewer roster spots for goaltenders across the league (62 versus a staggering 651). Typically, teams tend to play musical chairs with their goaltenders, as we saw during the 2017 offseason:
This past offseason was no exception. In the context of our list of 10 UFAs, seven teams (including the Detroit Red Wings) both lost a goaltender and signed a new one. We can exempt the Colorado Avalanche since they traded for Philipp Grubauer (plus, they’re balanced out by the Chicago Blackhawks signing a goalie), as well as the Philadelphia Flyers since they only traded for Mzarek due to injuries, and thus have no need for a new goalie.
That leaves the Winnipeg Jets and the Buffalo Sabres as teams that lost a goaltender but failed to replace them (Buffalo lost two but only signed one). Since Steve Mason is also out of work and previously played for the Jets, it’s unfair to assume they’d fill their void by signing him. Therefore, fans can give some good-natured side-eye Buffalo for Mason’s unemployment and Winnipeg for Lehtonen’s.
Or maybe we should blame Buffalo for Lehtonen as well by assuming it’s part of a nefarious scheme to get back at the Stars for the 1999 Stanley Cup. Yeah, I like that one better.
In all seriousness though, let’s take another look at how Lehtonen stacks up against his peers. We’ll throw out Hutton since his stats are a cut above, as well as Lehner and Mrazek due to their age.
One thing that sticks out is Lehtonen’s age — he’s the oldest of the bunch at 34, although Cam Ward is right behind him. Teams could be assuming that Lehtonen will continue to regress this year, even though his stats actually improved from the 2016-17 season. Still, it’s hard to imagine why a team would sign a player like Chad Johnson to a one-year, $1.5 million deal instead of Lehtonen. Chicago signing Ward to a one-year, $3 million deal is just laughable compared to what Lehtonen might have signed for.
If I were gaming this out as an armchair GM, I’d take Kari Lehtonen for a single season over almost any goaltender deal on this list. The exception would be Jonathan Bernier, who is much younger and has more consistent stats over the past several seasons. As far as new Stars goaltender Anton Khudobin, I think the two more or less break even, but I’d honestly rather have Lehtonen if it we’re just looking at this next season.
Of course, most Stars fans will vehemently disagree with me on this one. And the reason cam be summed up pretty nicely in a single image:
That right there is the Stars goalie stats from Game 7 against the St. Louis Blues in the second round of the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs (sorry to bring back your nightmares). And it represents the big reason many Stars fans were all too happy to say goodbye to Lehtonen. Unfortunately, he has developed the reputation of a player who comes up short in big games, someone who can’t tend the net well in high-pressure situations.
It’s games like these, as well as the eight-game losing streak, that led the Stars to not re-sign Kari Lehtonen despite his playing so strongly for the majority of this last season. And it’s more likely than not the reason why he is still unemployed — teams want a backup goaltender they can trust in a pinch, and Lehtonen doesn’t seem to fit the bill.
Here’s the thing, that’s very poor reasoning for not signing Lehtonen. Once again, for the majority of the season, Kari Lehtonen was carrying a .919 save percentage, which was not only better than Bishop’s .916%, it was also better than both Matt Murray and Braden Holtby, who are on the shortlist of goaltenders that helped win the past three Stanley Cups.
As far as the eight-game losing streak is concerned? As I wrote back in March, the Stars main concern wasn’t goaltending — remember, Lehtonen posted a .965% SV with 88 saves in his first three starts after Bishop’s injury — but rather secondary scoring, as well as just poor puck play by the team as the losing streak went on. It’d be unreasonable to expect Lehtonen, a backup goaltender, to bail out what was easily one of the most sluggish teams in the NHL at the time by stopping every single shot that went his way.
I’ll leave you with a final thought about backup goaltenders: Why is it when people talk about backup goaltenders, they speak as if their backup should be able to backstop their way to a deep playoff run? That isn’t the job of a backup goaltender; their role is to spot the starter during the regular season so they don’t get burnt out while still winning a decent amount of games, and then take a backseat during the playoffs.
Sure, you have stories like Matt Murray in 2016 and 2017 or Cam Ward in 2006 where a backup ends up winning you a Stanley Cup, but those are exceptions, not the norm. The norm is typically, “If you’re starting goalie gets injured, you’re going to lose in the playoffs,” as seen with the Edmonton Oilers in 2006 and the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2015 (where the goalie in question was incidentally Stars’ starter Ben Bishop).
Even if you put all of that aside, are you still going to sit here and tell me you’d rather have Chad Johnson or Cam Ward as your fallback over Kari Lehtonen? Sure, you can make the argument that Chicago isn’t a playoff team — although they’re definitely aspiring to be once more — but the only reason the Blues have for picking Johnson over Lehtonen is that the front office is still laughing over that Game 7 performance by the Stars from two years ago.
Maybe I’m all alone here in my evaluation of Lehtonen. Perhaps it’s pointless to even try and argue why a team besides Dallas should sign a player who is no longer with the Stars organization. But when I look at who else was signed in a relatively weak UFA class for goaltenders this offseason, I just can’t help myself. Lehtonen should be playing in the NHL next season, even if it looks like he might have played his last.