Dallas Stars Goaltending for 2015-2016: Antti Niemi Will be Good for Kari Lehtonen

The Antti Niemi signing has drawn a bit of criticism from fans and media but it's a good move for the Dallas Stars and Kari Lehtonen specifically, if just for one simple reason; he's not a backup.

With the Stars signing veteran goaltender, Antti Niemi, the focus on goaltending is readily apparent. To the tune of 10.4 million in cap. Dallas can certainly afford it, but as Steve Dangle was quick to remind Stars fans in his recent podcast, there's always enough cap space until there isn't.

As expensive as it is, regardless of whether Dallas can afford it, it stands in stark contrast to their other signings in recent years; goalies had for cheap who gave Dallas exactly what they paid for.

Goaltending has suddenly become a contentious issue among fans and observers in Dallas. One camp believes the goaltending will improve as the defense does. Nevermind that defense actually did improve, but Kari got worse. Another camp believes it was goaltending, Mike Valley, and whatever Indian burial ground that has cursed the ice Dallas' backups skate on. Yet another camp believes it's Lindy Ruff's fault, for how he relies too much on Kari. And so on...

In truth, each component is likely a factor. But Nill has come up with at least one particular solution; you need two goaltenders nowadays.

"Kari's still an elite goalie, but I just think the NHL is becoming a two-goalie league," Nill said. "We need that depth, because of travel, because of back-to-backs, and because we want to push Kari to be even better."

Nill believes in a 1A/1B system. My first thought was, "when has that ever worked?"

Looking at the average games played for goaltenders from the last three full NHL regular seasons, there are a lot of things that you'd expect.

  • The average amount of games played by an NHL starter over the last three full seasons is 54. The average amount of games played by an NHL backup is 15. Kari Lehtonen is well above that at 63. Only Arizona, LA, Montreal, Pittsburgh, and San Jose have averaged their starter to 60 games played or more.
  • Meanwhile, the Dallas backups are well below average at 8 games played over the course of three seasons. Anaheim, Arizona, Boston, and Nashville are a handful of teams that won't exactly pick up the lunch check for their backups. As for the goalie performances...
  • The average save percentage of an NHL starter is .916. The average save percentage of an NHL backup is .897. San Jose, Winnipeg, St. Louis, and Buffalo are the only teams in that span in which the backup position averaged better save percentages than the starter.
  • Dallas (or Kari, rather) is right there in the mean when it comes to their starter. So is Niemi for that matter. But Dallas' backups fall below the .897 mean with a paltry .881 SV percentage./

I don't think Nill was being all that literal with his 1A/1B comment. I think he just meant that you have to either have a starter, or someone with a history of being one. Or failing that, someone who will one day be one. Even if he does want some sort of actual 1A/1B situation, the history isn't that perilous.

The Blues have gone with a predominant tandem in each of the last three full season, splitting between Jaroslav Halak (40 and 46 games played in the two season before last), and Brian Elliot (31 and 38 respectively). Bernier and Reimer are generally considered fall guys for Randy Carlyle's system. Luongo and Lack, and Luongo and Schneider saw relatively even save percentages that ranged from average to above average. Montoya and Hutchinson outplayed Andrej Pavelec and were rewarded with 28 games and 38 games respectively. Minnesota has had modest success, which is important since they've played their backups 159 times over the last three full season (the most of any team).

Edmonton is the second highest at 134, and to very little success. The Islanders haven't had much success either. There's no real pattern here except that if you are good at the position, you will play more. If not, the coaches won't trust you to win games when it matters.

While a lot of fans have been highly critical of the Niemi signing, Dallas had the following UFA's to look at (ignoring Group VI UFA's: those 25 or older with 3 professional seasons under their belt and less than 28 games of experience):

Viktor Fasth .905 122
Peter Budaj .903 296
Karri Ramo .905 122
Michal Neuvirth .912 168
Josh Harding .918 151
Jonas Gustavsson .901 148
Thomas Greiss .913 89
Ray Emery .906 287
Anders Lindback .905 111
Dan Ellis .906 212
Jason Labarbera .907 187
Richard Bachman .904 42
Rob Zepp .888 10
Scott Clemmensen .905 191
Joey MacDonald .902 133
Johny Curry .879 8
Michael Leighton .901 105
Mike McKenna .889 22
Brad Thiessen .858 5

As you can see, Nill didn't have much of a choice (the best of the bunch is more or less retired). Amusingly, it really hammers the point home about Dallas' backup goaltending. This year's UFA class owns a collective save percentage well below the average at .900 which is lemon pepper salmon and artichoke compared to the cheese dip and cracker sticks the Stars have supported Kari with between the pipes the last several years. Niemi is better than that UFA class, which is all Dallas can ask for at this point.