Matching Minors: Kari Lehtonen vs. Antti Niemi - Who Should Dallas Choose for the Playoffs?
Wes and David break down everything you need to know about who to choose between Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Kari Lehtonen vs. Antti Niemi for the 2015-2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs. This is the question that Dallas Stars fans will stay up at night, pondering, prognosticating, and puzzling over.
Will Jim Nill's off season experiment work? Or will the soundbites prove true? That you need a number one? Whatever the case, the Dallas organization has a few dilemmas on hand.
Ok so let's talk the case for Kari Lehtonen. Why would the Dallas Stars want to hang their Cup contention on a goalie who has never been able to win the "big game"?
Wes: Because they have to hang it on somebody? Serious answer? In the past month Lehtonen has beaten Los Angeles (.923 SV%), Nashville (.933 SV%), and Chicago (.938 SV%). In fact, the Big Finn is 3-1 against the Hawks so far this season. If we expand the field to include likely playoff opposition the Stars are 3-0 against the Wild and 1-1 against St. Louis (with an OTL) when Lehtonen has played. Kari is also 2-0 against the league-leading Capitals.
Yes, during the same stretch Antti Niemi handled the Sharks, but he's also lost to the Coyotes, Ducks, Kings, Blues, and Predators since March first. Coach Ruff and company seem to have noticed the trend. Kari has played in seven of the last ten games, posted five wins, and shut out the desperate Islanders. The battle is over, Lehtonen got hot at the right time and is poised to backstop the fearsome Dallas offense into post-season play.
David: They shouldn't. I have a hard time staying objective on this one. If you accept that there's such a thing as clutch, you have to accept that there's such a thing as NOT clutch. And Kari strikes me as someone with precisely this disposition. Sian Beilock from the University of Chicago has done a lot of interesting work on the psychology of choking.
I think Kari responds to some of those psychological elements: the stereotype threat, for example. Which is pretty basic. For anyone who's ever seen that episode of Dave Chappelle wanting chicken but deciding to take the fish instead, that's it in a nutshell. Kari knows how others view him, and it seems to weigh on him, reinforcing what he thinks he isn't. The end result is the same, however. I hate doing this armchair psychology crap, but it's not like his numbers do him any favors. Just ask yourself this: if Dallas is up 3-1 in the third, and Kari lets in a soft goal, how confident are you really in leaving Kari in, game 7, Stanley Cup Finals, with 10 minutes go go?
Wes: If Dallas is up 3-1 in the third, their best chance to win is getting an empty-netter to make it 4-1. Asking which goaltender is most likely to win a playoff series is the wrong question with this team. I also think it's misleading to look at this as a locked-in situation. This team's crease is built around the notion of interchangeable parts.
David: Agreed, so let me rephrase. It's not so much about who can win this team a series so much as which goaltender can steal a game. That's the difference between Dallas being a dangerous team, and a dominant team. They have the pieces to be dominant. But their goaltending makes them ‘merely dangerous'.
Now let's talk a goalie that actually has won the "big game". Antti Niemi has the experience, and the hardware to prove that said experience had actual value. But a low save percentage is still a low percentage. Why does Dallas pick him?
Wes: Dallas picks Niemi because they think he can re-create the .910 / 2.63 line that won a Cup in Chicago. We can worry about defensive hockey winning in the post-season all we want, but if the Stars get that kind of performance (out of either goalie, mind you), they're going to be dangerous. Another factor is the psychology you mentioned earlier. If the Stars tap Niemi to start the post-season, it's because they've seen something they don't like in Kari's preparatory work or mindset. That, or an injury of some kind.
What seems much more important to me is Niemi's experience as part of a shared crease or tandem situation. Niemi is the steady hand you go to when Kari's scorching hotness begins to flicker. He's a professional goaltender, he'll be ready when called upon, and his ability to step in as relief could keep the mercurial Stars offense engaged in a game they might otherwise lose.
David: When you look at Niemi's stats, and the average shot distance he faces, Dallas doesn't allow the team to be threatened the way they do Kari. One has nothing to do with the other, but why keep the two apart even assuming only correlation? The stereotype threat works both ways. I think the players can grip their sticks a little less tight, and feel just a little more comfortable knowing that their netminder has not only been there in the big game, but has actually won it. I also just generally like his body language. When he's screened you see him fighting for visuals, moving around in net, in displaying the type of movement you expect out of someone doing everything he can to stop a shot. Niemi isn't perfect, but you can never accuse him of being lazy.
How much will goaltending define Dallas' ability to go deep into the playoffs?
Wes: It will and it won't. I mean, this is the NHL, goaltending is going to be a critical factor of whatever happens once the post-season puck drops. If the Stars develop a leak, the boat will sink, no bones about it. With that said, this Stars team did not get to where they are on the strength of 1-0 results. To expect that to suddenly change would be foolish.
Offense defines the Dallas Stars. To win, they will need to score three and four goals consistently, and to neutralize their opponents by piling on pressure. They need their goaltending to avoid serious gaffes, deal with the occasional breakdown, and avoid snowball sequences where 1-0 turns into 2-0, 3-0, etc.
David: I'll try to give the goalies a break for a second. After all, these problems aren't due to zero sum causes. Dallas is one of the worst teams in the league at allowing high danger chances. How can they be expected to do their jobs when Dallas' defense (forwards included) aren't doing their jobs?
To the public, Dallas' goaltending will be the reason "they lost". Nill is an intelligent man. I don't see him as someone being swayed by the optics. But it makes the offseason a little off kilter if Nill thinks a goalie is more important than a defensemen.
Wes: Unless they're giving up center ice lob-shots, nobody is going to hang an early exit on either Stars goalie. This post-season is going to be about Jamie "Beastmode" Benn, Tyler Seguin's return from injury, and John Klingberg. Depth players stepping up will matter, as will Radek Faksa. The Stars' veteran free agents (Jason Spezza, Patrick Sharp, Johnny Oduya) are going to get a lot of ink, and we'll draw a direct line between how Alex Goligoski and Jason Demes play and their next contracts.
Honestly, I think it's much more likely this post-season will be defined by Cody Eakin than either Stars goalie. Fans have had 82 games to prepare.
David: True that. That's likely the biggest issue: the play of their UFA defensemen. A bad performance likely means they'll cut ties and go with the young defensemen of CP. A good performance and they're probably looking to keep most of the them intact, which could either be good or bad. Back on topic, I think it's funny that no one seems to consider whether or not both will be used efficiently. Why not just start whatever goaltender has historically better numbers against team X and then the other versus team Y? Just saying.