What Should The Dallas Stars Do About Kari Lehtonen?
photo: Scott Slingsby/InGoal
This has been one of Dallas Stars’ goalie Kari Lehtonen’s most difficult seasons in the NHL. His overall save percentage of .902 is near the bottom of the league charts and there has been some talk about whether the Stars should buy the Finn out in June. They might want to take time and think this through, however, because there is a chance that his performance this season is more outlier than portent of the future.
There are several things to consider when looking at what is unquestionably a bad season for Lehtonen. Are the numbers indicative of a problem or are they a one-off anomaly? What is the likelihood of Lehtonen bouncing back next season? Do the Stars have anyone in their system who could jump into an NHL role immediately? What about a trade or free agent? Would a new goalie’s performance be better than Lehtonen’s? Would the cap savings make the risk worthwhile? If Antti Niemi gets bought out, does it make sense to do the same with Lehtonen?
In Lehtonen’s case, raw save percentage hides an interesting truth: Lehtonen has been very good at saving what Corsica.Hockey deems the most dangerous shots. His High Danger save percentage was .8311 at 5-on-5. This is well above the league average for goalies with his kind of ice time — he ranks twelfth out of 49 goalies with at least 1000 5-on-5 minutes. His middle range save percentage (.9306) is not as high but is still well above league average. He ranks 19th in that measure.
The problem for Lehtonen lies in his low danger save percentage (.9759) which was in the bottom third of the league (37th of those same 49 goalies). That’s an interesting conundrum because of the three, low danger save percentage tends to fluctuate the most from season to season and there is good reason — both statistically and using the eye test — to believe that this zone is the “noisiest” of the three zones.
In short, there’s a good chance that Lehtonen’s performance in this zone this season is not predictive of next season’s performance. It’s not a guarantee, of course, and there is still a risk here. But it’s probably not as great a risk as it seems on the surface.
In part that is because another area that caused Lehtonen problems was the penalty kill. His .806 save percentage when down a man was 53rd out of 54 goalies with at least 20 games played.
A portion of the difficulties on the PK can be attributed to Lehtonen’s more aggressive style, which can be exposed in man-down situations. But additionally, a team’s defensive weaknesses can be exaggerated on a penalty kill. That can include things like screens, deflections, one-timers and other quick releases, and lateral puck movement.
These are four of the most dangerous elements an NHL goalie sees, and they all increase when the goalie’s team is on the penalty kill. In other words, tightening up defensive issues in front of Lehtonen might just take away a significant chunk of the goals against the Stars dealt with this season.
The real issue here is that aging is going to be an increasing factor in Lehtonen’s play. He is 33 years old and most goalies see some kind of decline after age 28 or so. How much and how rapid is anyone’s guess. A lot depends on staying uninjured and no one can guarantee that.
Are Lehtonen’s recent numbers evidence of aging? It’s impossible to say with any precision, but it has to be a concern for the Stars management.
However, any time you consider parting ways with a starting goaltender, you have to think about who will take their place. Do the Dallas Stars have anyone in their system ready to make the leap to even a backup NHL workload?
The answer here has to be no. The closest prospect in their system is Maxime Lagace, 24 years old with 69 AHL games played over three seasons. His numbers with the AHL Texas Stars have been below average for most of that time and he has yet to be asked to manage a starter’s load there. It would be unlikely for the Stars to promote him at this point, even as a backup.
The Niemi Factor
It is widely speculated that Antti Niemi will be bought out. There is no question that he and the Stars have been a bad fit. In his two years with Dallas, Niemi posted some of the worst numbers of his career, a .900 overall and a .918 at 5-on-5.
More to the point, the two-starter tandem experiment took its toll on Niemi’s confidence. Head Coach Lindy Ruff’s frequent pulls of Niemi clearly affected him, as he noted to Finnish site Yle Sports in January. The constant changing of goalies became an “endless morass,” Niemi said. “A week ago, I was really happy with the situation where I was. Barely two games later, [I was a] much worse goalkeeper.”
Being unable to get into a rhythm and establish confidence certainly can affect a goalie’s play. While it’s not an excuse, it does go some way to establish not only that Niemi is even more likely than Lehtonen to be let go, but also that the issues in the Dallas crease went deeper than the performance of any single goaltender.
This raises the question, of course, of how new Head Coach Ken Hitchcock will approach the goaltending. In his final season with the St. Louis Blues, Hitchcock developed a man-on-man defense that played havoc with Jake Allen’s ability to trust his reads. If that continues in Dallas, how will that affect whichever goaltender is in net?
If Niemi is bought out this summer, it would save the Stars $3 million against the cap in 2017-18, but cost them $1.5 million in 2018-19. Three million is more than enough to pay for a fairly solid backup acquired either through trade or free agency.
But should the team decide to try to find a taker for Lehtonen on the trade market, chances are they’ll have a very tough time of it. Among the goalies rumored to be available via trade are Marc-Andre Fleury and Corey Crawford. Ben Bishop, Brian Elliott, and Steve Mason will all be free agents.
Trade partners will have no shortage of options and that drives the price of goalies in trade way down. What would the Stars give up to get out from under a single year of Kari Lehtonen’s contract? The price could easily be more than Dallas is willing to pay.
In the end, Dallas might reasonably choose to pause on doing anything drastic with Lehtonen. There is a good chance that he could turn in a better performance in 2017-18. When that is weighed alongside potential defensive improvements under a new coach as well as the likely cost of replacing Lehtonen with a goalie who may or may not perform better, waiting might be the most prudent thing to do.