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Dallas Stars Daily Links: How Good Is Kari Lehtonen’s Contract?

Now that Toronto finally won the Daniel Winnik sweepstakes, the offseason is really starting to set in. August is almost here, and the Great Hockey Silence is waiting for us like a high school soccer coach on the sidelines after you get red carded for screaming at the ref in the fifth minute of a tournament game. It is not a fun place to be, where we are right now. So as we prepare to slowly trudge across the now-daunting field of nothingness, it is time to reflect upon the bigger things at work in our lives, as one does. Today, that means Kari Lehtonen’s contract.

Kari Lehtonen is signed for four more years at a cap hit of $5.9 million. You may remember that some thought this contract was a good value when it was signed right before the lockout a couple years ago, and when we see things like this, it becomes almost normal that someone chose to pay another person six million dollars just to play ice hockey… That perhaps says more about us as a society than it does about the relative benefits of his cap hit, so let’s get into some actual factors that may help us to decide how good this contract really is right now.

Interlude: I’m not going to discuss playoffs, since the overall value of a long-term contract really has no business being measured by a six-game sample. Maybe it is best to remember how many people were talking about Turco’s inability to perform in the playoffs even after 2007 happened. It took that deep run in 2008 for him to even begin to shed that “Dallas will never win a cup with that goaltender” label. Then we watched as Corey Crawford won a cup, Detroit assembled a cyborg from the AARP bin that did the trick, and Marc-Andre Fleury was lauded, sort of, until he was hated again. It seems that having an amazing goalie (or just one who gets hot at the right time) is important, but it is not required. Lundqvist lost to Crawford a very mediocre Quick last month. I just discussed playoffs.

First, It is a little bit interesting to note that Kari’s actual paycheck will be decreasing after next year even as his cap hit remains static. He’ll make $6.25 million this season before dropping to $6 million flat from 2015-2017, then dropping to $5 million in 2018. This salary decline is not unheard-of, both because it often mirrors the player’s age/performance curve, and it can also make the player potentially easier to trade later on, especially to teams with more cap space than actual dollars to spend. (That’s us.) You may recall that this is the case with both the Horcoff and Spezza deals that the Stars took on, but let’s assume that is the only similarity we will see between those two players for the rest of the season. In any case, Lehtonen’s contract is structured such that it becomes easier for a team to withstand or trade as the years go by. This is a good thing, especially with the cap slated to increase over the next few years. As more goalies get signed to big deals over the next year or two, even a slightly above-average performance from Lehtonen could look like a relatively good value. In other words, we can probably bet that this deal will look much more favorable than, say, Corey Crawford’s contract by this time next season. It might already look that way.

Second, Lehtonen has been playing lots of games the past few years. While the average #1 goalie starts about 50 games per season these days, Kari led the league with 65 games played last year even while missing time with a couple of injuries. This usage is consistent with how the Stars have used Lehtonen ever since Turco departed:

Year GP % of team’s GP
2010-2011 69 84%
2011-2012 59 72%
🙁 2013 36 75%
2013-2014 65 79%

As any good manager or business owner knows, the more time an employee puts in actually working, the more valuable an asset she is for her company. (And we already know that Kari’s workload is ridiculously high.) Here we can see that Kari is most certainly earning his money, even as the Stars seek to take some of that workload away. It seems reasonable now to say, as many have been saying, that Joe Nieuwendyk made a fantastic trade when he got Lehtonen, since the one factor mitigating Stars fans’ joy that day was a concern about Lehtonen’s health. It is fair to commend Lehtonen and the Stars organization for his becoming exactly what they hoped he could be: a number one goaltender who the franchise could depend on. Can you imagine the state Dallas would have been in this year if they had been in Nashville’s shoes? Lehtonen has never put them in that position, and that is literally one of the things that he is paid to do.

Finally, let’s talk about overall quality. You all know that Kari is the NHL’s 9th-richest goaltender. But some minor spreadsheet work also reveals that his .919 SV% was 10th in the league among goalies who played at least half their team’s games, which is the number right next to 9th. Look:

Player Age Tm GP SV% ▾
Tuukka Rask 26 BOS 58 0.930
Semyon Varlamov 25 COL 63 0.927
Carey Price 26 MTL 59 0.927
Ben Bishop 27 TBL 63 0.924
Sergei Bobrovsky 25 CBJ 58 0.923
Jonathan Bernier 25 TOR 55 0.922
Jaroslav Halak 28 TOT 52 0.921
Cory Schneider 27 NJD 45 0.921
Henrik Lundqvist 31 NYR 63 0.920
Kari Lehtonen 30 DAL 65 0.919

A few things stick out here (other than the glut of Eastern Conference goaltenders). Age seems like a big thing here. Even though single-season save percentage can have wide error bars, (as evidenced by Halak, Varlamov and Bernier all being up there) these numbers do seem to consistent with the data on aging curves, and that’s probably something that shouldn’t be discounted. And since injuries are going to be more of a risk for older netminders, it’s little wonder that the Stars are reconsidering their recent strategy of hiring backup goaltenders straight from NHL Craigslist.

But the other point that really jumped out at me is that, of those nine other goalies atop this list, only three of them are making more than Lehtonen: Quick, King Henrik and Rask. (Note: Bobrobsky and Varlamov are both making $6.25 million like Lehtonen is, but they are also a few years younger than Kari, so there’s perhaps a better chance of ROI on those deals, one would think.) In a perfect world, we might prefer to see Kari being outperformed only by goalies on egregiously large deals, but this is the world we have. People who are older and are paid more often contribute less, while some of the younger people work hard and contribute more as the organization happily pays them less. This is basically everyone’s workplace. Kari may begin transitioning from one of those groups to the other at some point over the next few years, but we all hope that he does so slowly enough for us to still smile when we see him in 2018.

I don’t have a bona fide conclusion here, but I think you can basically frame Kari’s value one of the below ways. There’s no poll in this one because the discussion is a little too nuanced, I hope. My last thought is that Kari has probably fulfilled his obligations thus far to some extent, but his tenure will be defined by the next two years. Goalies, man.

Your Definitely Reliable Conclusion about Kari Lehtonen’s Contract (pick one):

It’s a Great Value! Despite major issues on defense, shot differential (until last year) and overall depth, Lehtonen has consistently given above-average to top-ten performances during his time here. On a team that has been shaky almost everywhere, Lehtonen has kept the crease steady and “given the Stars a chance to win” on a regular basis, making GMJN1 look like a genius. His job should be safe for years to, oh.

He Performs As Expected. Kari is paid to be an above-average goalie, and he is an above-average goalie. Dallas would be in trouble without him, but they aren’t going to be led to the promised land solely upon his shoulders. There is room to grow, and there is a guy with a cane just offstage named Jack Campbell, biding his time…biding his time…

That Guy is Overrated and Overpaid. Lehtonen doesn’t deserve to be the highest-paid player on the team, and the Stars would do better to trade him as soon as they can and look elsewhere. He won’t be taking them deep into the playoffs, and it’s time to stop pretending that he will.

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Here are some links to websites with stories about hockey.

Tim Cowlishaw expects the Stars to reach the WCF within the next five years. [DMN]

The Dallas Stars care about your children being fit. Here is what they are doing to help them. I don’t see “screaming at kids who bump into me in the grocery store because they’re staring at their cell phones” listed as one of the things they’re doing, though, so I guess I’ll keep picking up the slack on that front. Anyway, this link is encouraging. [Stars]

Do you want to know who will be wearing Reilly Smith’s old number? Of course you do! [Twitter]

Will the Stars and Blues will be battling for the #2 spot in the division next year? More and more people are starting to think so. [Puck Daddy]

TSN is doing a Franchise Faceoff where you can vote on which player is blah blah blah they are aware that it is summer as well. Vote for any Dallas players, I guess, and prove something to everyone. This is worse than the all-star game, but at least there’s not a game we have to watch. [TSN]

Just in case you were reconsidering, Dallas did, in fact, win the Brad Richards trade, but only “by a hair.” [Hockey News]

Peter Mueller signed with St. Louis, and we might even see him play this year if they ever promote him, because it’s a two-way deal. Everyone needs a Patrick Eaves, I guess. Mueller could actually be decent if he regains his old form, but how many people can you say that about? [St. Louis Game Time]

Jake Gardiner signed a 5-year, $20 million deal to stay with Toronto, which some people think might bring up Dillon’s price tag. This is exactly what Dillon’s agent is hoping for. [CBC]

Grantland has a neat piece looking at the players who stumbled into the spotlight. Hockey content in late July! [Grantland]

How did Mike Vernon set the stage for the Patrick Roy trade out of Montreal? Vernon revealed some details about a breakfast he had with Roy the morning of that famous game. [SB Nation]

A little well-done, but here’s a video from Development Camp with a scrimmage AND a shootout. What could be more exciting, Gary Bettman asked.