As the St. Louis Blues put the finishing touches on their 6-1 Game 7 embarrassment of the Dallas Stars, fans at American Airlines Center rose to their feet. They waved towels. They cheered loudly. It was quite a scene.
And it’s the thing you expect to see from a franchise that’s still in participation ribbon mode rather than championship mode.
They can't be. Not with that goaltending.
This was one of the worst Game 7 performances in the history of the National Hockey League. It followed a gutsy Game 6 win that willed it into existence, and a regular season that was statistically the best in the Western Conference. The Stars were a blast to watch – a high-octane offensive team with blazing star performances.
They were also the easiest team to handicap in the postseason: Everyone knew their goaltending wasn’t of a championship caliber, and it needed to be, considering the way the system in front of them demands more from its last line of defense. Everyone knew Kari Lehtonen couldn’t be trusted to piece together two consecutive quality starts, and he ended up giving up a hilariously bad three goals on eight shots in his first and only period of work.
The fact of the matter is that GM Jim Nill designed a two-goalie system with the regular season in mind. Here he was from last summer, after the Stars signed Antti Niemi:
“We're lucky. It's managable with our cap situation. We have the flexibility to do that and I really believe it's becoming a two-goalie league. It's hard for one goalie with all of this travel and back-to-backs. The league is so close. If you can win an extra two or three games because you have a rested, healthy, very competitive No. 1 goalie that you can put in any time is going to make a big difference.”
It did … in the regular season. The Stars managed a team GAA of 2.78.
It didn’t in the postseason. It climbed to 3.23. And that’s despite giving up fewer shots (27.4) per game in the playoffs than in the regular season (28.9) on average.
Knives were out for the goalie situation in the Dallas media after the game, and rightfully so.
The story of the game and now the offseason was the ridiculously bad goaltending that the Stars received from Kari Lehtonen in the first Game 7 of his career. The irony was that the longtime netminder played the best game of his career in Game 6 on Monday to preserve the series only to come back and play potentially the worst game of his career last night. This simply demonstrates his tenure in Dallas in a clear and frustrating nutshell. His ceiling is very high in that his best nights are fantastic (albeit too rare), but his wild flashes in inconsistency demonstrate that his floor is so low that he just does not fit the part of being a highly compensated ($6m a year), playoff goaltender.
The Stars have what we call a substantial issue in goal. Which, ironically, is where this season started. The progress has been impressive and the growth has been wonderful. This team has transformed from a lottery team to a Western Conference regular season champion in an incredibly short time and this team has youth and talent everywhere. But, like the 1997 team that was built for greatness but needed a few more pieces, this team still needs to find its final few parts. Like Eddie Belfour then, this team clearly needs a goalie that can handle his business on a more consistent basis.
Here is the worst reality from Wednesday: Lehtonen is signed through two more years, as is Niemi. Former Stars general manager Joe Nieuwendyk’s decision to give a five-year, $29.5 million extension back in September of 2012 still haunted this team.
When the Stars added Niemi in the off-season, current Stars GM Jim Nill handed him a three-year extension.
The Stars know that their two-headed Finnish goalie is good enough to support a brilliantly talented group of skaters to the best record in the Western Conference in the regular season. There is no reason to believe this tandem can get them any further than Wednesday night.
What can we say? It didn't work. In an 82-game regular season, it's OK to have a No. 1 and a No. 1A goaltender. In the playoffs? Not such a good idea.
Neither Stars goalie ever got into what one might call a rhythm. Kari Lehtonen was the primary choice by coach Lindy Ruff, but even Lehtonen never started and finished more than three games in a row. Lehtonen and Antti Niemi got benched three times during games and Ruff made two other switches between games. And that was in a span of 13 games.
This is not a system that has a chance to work in future postseasons. That much we learned.
So now what?
Nill signed Niemi. He didn’t sign Lehtonen. But he has called the veteran “part of the solution” when asked about potentially buying him out last April.
Buying out the last two years of Lehtonen would cost a bit but the cap implications aren’t devastating. Perhaps a trade could work, but he has a limited no-trade clause and you’d have to find a goalie with an equal cap hit and more term coming back.
We’re not saying that the emergence of Matt Murray would make Marc-Andre Fleury of the Pittsburgh Penguins, signed through 2019, the perfect candidate for such a trade.
Oh, wait, no, we totally are. (Unless the Rangers suddenly wise up and entertain a blockbuster rebuilding trade for Henrik Lundqvist and somehow convince him to waive his no-move. Good luck with that.)
Of course, it’s not just the goaltending. It’s the defense in front of it too, like the disaster that was Kris Russell:
The Stars were outshot in the playoffs with Kris Russell on the ice 5on5. He finished with the worst shot-attempt diff. among Dallas Dmen.
— Thomas Drance (@ThomasDrance) May 12, 2016
[Alex] Goligoski is one of four defensemen who can become unrestricted free agents in the summer. Jason Demers, Kris Russell and Jordie Benn are the others. Do the Stars keep all, keep some, rebuild the defense with kids?
Nill has some big decisions to make on the Stars’ backend.
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