With Kari Lehtonen Not His Best, Dallas Stars Need Jussi Rynnas to Shine
As much of a problem as the Stars defense has been this season, the sub-par netminding the team has received has only made things worse.
Jussi Rynnas arrived with the Dallas Stars on Wednesday afternoon, reportedly "resplendent" in all-white pads in his first practice with the team since training camp. He will start in goal tonight against the Detroit Red Wings as his team tries to right a heavily listing ship.
The Stars are certainly hoping Rynnas is the answer to their problems, because the goaltending they've put forth so far this season has been distinctly sub-par.
Entering Thursday's game, the Stars have the second-lowest team save percentage in the NHL at 0.893, slightly ahead of the lowly Edmonton Oilers and just behind the Columbus Blue Jackets. Average NHL goaltending hovers around the 0.910 range.
Now it's obviously worth noting that Stars goalies are both a cause and an effect of the problems going on. They are made worse by the defense (or lack thereof) in front of them, but at the same time, none of them have lived up to the standards they've set for themselves either. After all, four teams have given up as many or more shots as Dallas without having a team save percentage in the bottom 10 - 0.924 (Ottawa, 5th), 0.918 (Montreal, 9th), 0.916 (Buffalo, 12th) and 0.909 (Colorado, 17th).
It boils down to this - the Stars are getting out-goaltended on a regular basis this season. Some of that has to fall on the goalies themselves.
Consider what was written in early November about Lehtonen last year, a time period when the Stars certainly weren't playing their best hockey:
With Lehtonen starting in net this season, the Stars are 7-2-2 and have given up at least four goals only once -- the season-opening loss to the Florida Panthers. Lehtonen has a goals against average of 2.01 and a save percentage of .934, both very high but not quite absurd enough to be considered unsustainable (like, say, Jean-Sebastian Giguere's 0.75 goals against average and .977 save percentage or Josh Harding's 1.16 goals against average and .949 save percentage.)
Take Tuesday's shootout victory over the Boston Bruins. Yes, the Stars took an early 1-0 lead, but they were essentially skated off the ice by the Bruins in the early going, falling to a 15-1 shot disadvantage before eventually clawing their way back to even. The only reason that game wasn't out of control before the Stars could get their engines going was the play of Lehtonen.
With a team that so relies on his ability to clean up defensive zone messes, Lehtonen has to be practically brilliant in far too many games, meaning that even a slight hiccup can easily lead to a large number of goals against. And they clearly struggle in front of a variety of backup goalies when he goes down with an injury.
That does say as much about the team as it does Lehtonen -- the Stars still need elite-caliber netminding just to remain competitive, at least many nights.
The last sentence remains true this year. The issue is the Stars aren't getting that caliber goaltending, at least consistently. Lehtonen looked unbeatable in his shutout win over the Los Angeles Kings, and he made the save that mattered even when giving up a goal he probably wants back against the Arizona Coyotes.
But there have been far too many soft goals and mediocre games from Lehtonen to go along with the too many mistakes from the players in front of him.
So the ugly raw numbers, first for the backup goalie who is no longer with us. Anders Lindback has by far the worst numbers of his career, albeit in a very small sample size. In five starts, all losses, he has a save percentage of .861 and a goals against average of 4.63. Even as he struggled at times in Tampa, his numbers in two years with the Lightning were a .897 save percentage with a 2.90 goals against.
He was on pace to face slightly more shots than he was in his first year in Tampa (about 30 more overall, or just more than one more per game), but that doesn't account for the big bump in either statistic.
Essentially, Lindback deserved his demotion because he was struggling mightily on his own accord regardless of how the team was playing in front of him.
The story is the same with Lehtonen and probably more concerning given just how much the Stars relied on him last season.
Lehtonen has a 9-6-5 record in 21 games with a 0.903 save percentage and 3.13 goals against average, both career worsts. And that's saying something because he played behind some really terrible Thrashers teams.
In fact, the 32 shots per game Lehtonen is facing at the moment is not the most of his career. That is a 32.5 shots per game average with the 2008-09 Thrashers, when Lehtonen went 19-22-3 in 46 games but had a 0.911 save percentage and 3.06 goals against.
Are the shots Lehtonen's facing of significantly higher quality than he has in previous seasons? That's a very difficult metric to quantify with the easily available data. And to some extent, it may be irrelevant - after all, the central dogma of the most commonly used possession statistics is that a shot attempt is a shot attempt, no matter where it's taken from. Still it could be a factor.
I'm a little hesitant to point to that though because several of those Thrasher teams were terrible. Both the 2007-08 and 2008-09 versions had exactly 76 points in 82 games and were not looked on kindly around the league. Offenses at the time were even more high-flying than they are now right after the lockout and the subsequent harsh enforcement of obstruction rules. If there are teams you can assume gave up tons of quality chances, bad teams right after the lockouts are certainly among them.
So if it's not the difference in the defense in front of him (and again, being compared to the late 2000s Thrashers is hardly a compliment to the current defense), some of the problem has to be with Lehtonen himself. This is evident in the general eye test as well, because while there are certainly some games that Lehtonen has been the key difference maker, there haven't been nearly as many of them this season.
There are plenty of other players who are underperforming relative to their own expectations. The difference is it's virtually impossible for a skater to win a game via his own efforts (as demonstrated by the Stars losing when Tyler Seguin scored a hat trick) while it's at least a semi-regular occurrence for an individual effort from a goalie to will his team to a win.
Lehtonen is certainly not the entirety of the problem. But he's not been the solution he has been in the past either.