The Dallas Stars Don't Need Ben Bishop to Win
The Stars might trade for a goalie. The Stars might also win a Stanley Cup if they don't.
A couple of months ago, I went to a new barbecue restaurant at lunch. This place had just opened up across the street from the office, and a few of us had been looking for an excuse to have a 1,000-calorie lunch for a change. Anyway, we'd finally decided to go ahead and try this new place out. So, shortly after the Outlook reminder popped up, we made our way over to pulled pork and cornbread while having the semi-awkward conversation typical of most coworkers who have decided to tolerate each other for the long haul.
It was a small place, and there were only two people working. The kitchen was more theoretically separated from the dining area than walled off in any meaningful sense, which meant that we got to guess which of our orders the proprietors were preparing as each discrete item hit the grill. After ten minutes or so, the beaming server/cashier brought our food over, and we expressed the appropriate level of admiring surprise as our pulled pork and brisket platters slid onto our table.
It was an unremarkable experience until about halfway through my meal. My sandwich had been adequately crispy and savory up to that point, and it was with a heavy heart that I lifted the napkin to my mouth mid-sentence to remove the hair that had stowed away inside my sandwich. There is no graceful way to deal with finding a hair in your food, especially with the proprietors responsible within easy earshot. I delicately deposited my last bite into my napkin and wedged it underneath the corner of my plate, ignoring the quizzical looks from the others at my table. A surreptitious inspection of my sandwich revealed that the first hair had at least two buddies left to be encountered, and so I chose to content myself with something closer to a 522-calorie lunch. I didn't complain or anything—it was an accident, obviously—but I haven't been back.
Before last season, our expectations were fairly high. The team looked like one that should at least win a playoff round, and that's what happened. Along the way, the team got off to a red-hot start, and a Jason Spezza hat trick in game 82 ensured home ice advantage for the first three rounds. The team had raised the bar, and the fans' appetites for victory had likewise expanded. Minnesota was vanquished, though only an inch of the puck kept the Wild from completing an absurd comeback after going down 4-0 in the elimination game. The Stars would do better in their next Game 6, as Kari Lehtonen made a couple of freeze-frame stops to force a Game 7. But that was where the rickety goaltending train finally came undone, all but negating the wonderful season that had led up to it.
Goaltending's best measurements are ones of percentage. We try to find a large enough body of work to filter out the anomalies, then we use those numbers to make our best predictions about what that same goaltender can be expected to do, most of the time, all things being equal.
Of course, all things are never equal. Goalies, like the teams in front of them, age. They suffer injuries. Equipment changes. Systems get altered, and shooters hone in on weaknesses. Those factors (and others that are harder to isolate) explain why Kari Lehtonen went from a statistically dependable netminder to a grievous liability in one season. We've talked circles around that fact, but two seasons of goaltending collapses (combined with 2014's similar end) have whipped us into a frenzy when it comes to the crease. Antti Niemi was exactly what we hoped he could be for half a season, but then he stopped being that. Kari Lehtonen looked better, at times, but losing a game in the first period is about as badly as a goalie's game can go, and that's what fans remember.
It's also why so many of us are convinced that the Stars have to change the goaltending. That last bite into a promising sandwich ended horribly, and there is no way we can go back, even if we know there are ways (demonstrably!) to succeed with the current goaltenders.
You could say that the luckiest team ends up winning the Stanley Cup each year and not be totally wrong. The Penguins ended up going with their third-string goaltender for most of the playoffs, and it ended up being enough. The Sharks bet their first-round pick and a prospect on the Kings' latest backup not being just another Jonathan Bernier/Ben Scrivens, and it got them to the Final. Of course, it's worth pointing out that the Sharks also traded for James Reimer, hedging their bets just a bit. Both of those teams got a bit lucky in terms of what their goaltending turned out to be, even if they had reasons for optimism beforehand.
Proven Veteran Goalies are, like Kari Lehtonen, trusted to provide quality percentages until their Provenness is disproven. We have general knowledge about when those declines are more likely to start, and we all have our opinions about "mental fortitude" that certainly plays some part in the high-pressure environment of the playoffs, too. But just as the Stars tried to hedge their bets with Antti Niemi last year, so are we all clamoring for another Plan this time around.
That plan has lately consisted of "Get Ben Bishop so we'll win more games!" and it's not a bad one, to be sure. Bishop's recent percentages are sterling, and his size gives added confidence despite some recent playoff injuries that would send the Stars right back to where they were this past April, should they recur. Again, one would hope the Stars (should they get Bishop) would be lucky enough not to experience that, because what else can you do if you don't have a third-string goalie like Matt Murray ready to go?
Well, the Stars can actually do a few things that would help in that situation (or in any situation). The most important thing is the same one they did last year, often: score more goals than the team shooting on your goaltender. It feels dangerous and heart-wrenching, but the Stars are in a very real sense the best-suited team to deal with allowing more goals than they would like. If your team's GAA is too high, then raising your goals-for, as Dallas can do, is an obvious mathematical means of counteracting that weakness.
The safest, of course, would be to lower chances against. Anaheim and Nashville were both great at this last season, and while Pekka Rinne had a rather bad season by his own standards, those teams both looked formidable despite being a fair bit less lethal than Dallas or San Jose on offense. But these teams also relied on low-chance systems, and it's safe to say that Dallas isn't built to play the stingiest sort of game right now. Still, acquisitions like Dan Hamhuis seem targeted to this end, and it's safe to say that Dallas would love to allow fewer chances around their net, if they can do so without totally sacrificing their transition game.
So if the Stars don't get Ben Bishop because he costs too much, or because Tampa Bay for some crazy reason would prefer to take another kick at the Stanley can with a top-five goalie under contract, they're far from sunk. If the Stars are unable to acquire Bishop or a similar top goalie (as Nill is heavily rumored to have been attempting this summer), then all we're really talking about is a slightly worse save percentage lottery ticket for Dallas. Yes, the numbers are stark, but the teams with Henrik Lundqvist or Cory Schneider haven't been the luckiest ones in the last 12 years, either. Dallas is in the enviable position of being one goalie trade away from the presumed top seed in the West, again. They did this last year with 50/50 goaltending in the season and pretty much not-good playoff goaltending—and they were still only one game away from the Conference Finals.
I guess what I'm saying is, wanting Ben Bishop feels almost greedy. That's okay, by the way. Good teams that don't win the Cup always feel just one or two pieces away from doing so. Dallas's pieces, in this case, are basically a top goalie (whom they could certainly acquire if they didn't care about the cost) and maybe one more defenseman (who might turn out to be in the organization already).
Tampa Bay entered last year's playoffs with the goaltending triumvirate of Ben Bishop, Andrei Vasilevskiy, and Kristers Gudļevskis. Tampa Bay also had the elite Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman leading the blue line, and they also had a dynamic offense with multiple lines of scoring aptitude. They advanced one series further than Dallas, with both teams missing their top center/right wing. They were beaten by Pittsburgh and Matt Murray, whose defense consisted of Kris Letang, a bunch of kids, Ian Cole and Trevor Daley. Dallas is not a broken team compared to Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, or San Jose. Dallas is, like all of these teams, a very good team always looking increase its odds of success. Getting better goaltending is one way to do that, but getting even Ben Bishop is far from a guarantee of further playoff success. It's not the only way, either.
Dallas looks like a team intent on fixing its weaknesses. The defense as it stands now will probably be expected to improve from within, and Esa Lindell and Stephen Johns give reasons for optimism about such improvement. The forward corps with a full season of Radek Faksa (and, like, everyone else, too) is as promising a group as any in the NHL.
The goaltending can be improved. It looks likely that Jim Nill will, at some point, make a move to do so. But the Stars' hopes for this season don't need to live or die based on one goaltender—or, perhaps, even on two goaltenders. This isn't 2014-15's year of Kari Lehtonen or Bust. This is not a team limping along looking for a shot in the arm, but rather one hitting its powerband, looking for a shot of NOS. That the Stars will get that shot at some point seems likely, but my optimism for this coming season is ultimately rooted in the fact that the team is finally in a place where they can look for that "last piece" at all. Being greedy is, finally, okay.