Jason Brough

AP

Goaltending remains the biggest question mark in Dallas

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This post is part of Stars Day on PHT…

There’s a saying that goaltending is 50 percent of hockey, unless you don’t have it, then it’s 100 percent.

The 2015-16 Dallas Stars, everyone.

OK, fine, goaltending wasn’t the only reason the Stars didn’t make it past the St. Louis Blues in the second round. There was some other stuff, too. “It’s breakdowns, all kinds of things,” said Alex Goligoski.

But statistically speaking, nothing was as glaring as Kari Lehtonen finishing the postseason with an .899 save percentage in 11 appearances and Antti Niemi posting a ghastly .865 save percentage in five appearances. In Game 7 against the Blues, Lehtonen was yanked after surrendering three goals on just eight shots in the first period. The Stars lost the game, 6-1.

With a combined cap hit of $10.4 million, it’s hard to defend that kind of play from the netminders. Lehtonen and Niemi also had modest numbers during the regular season — in fact, the Stars’ team save percentage (.904) was among the lowest in the league — but Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and company scored a lot of goals, and that mostly covered up the problem.

Lindy Ruff, of course, would take issue with calling it a “problem.” The head coach got pretty “tired” of constantly having to explain the two-goalie system during the postseason.

“You can write any story you want,” Ruff told reporters after the Stars were eliminated. “We used two guys the whole year. They were comfortable with it. It might have been the reason we got to where we got to. It’s not the reason we lost.”

His opinion.

Many would disagree.

Lehtonen, 32, and Niemi, 32, are both under contract for two more years. Given their age, numbers and cap hits, it may not be possible to trade either of them, even if the Stars were to retain salary.

So, what is GM Jim Nill going to do? Buying out Lehtonen was a no-go. He made that clear.

Stars beat writer for the Dallas Morning News, Mike Heika, thinks Nill will wait and see how things play out next season.

“I believe his thinking is that if either or both goalies play well, and their contracts start to decrease this season, they will become easier to trade,” wrote Heika. “Plus, any of the teams that will trade you a top goalies, probably need some sort of veteran to serve as a back-up goalie for the youngster they are keeping.”

There’s been speculation that the Stars could be interested in Tampa Bay’s Ben Bishop, who can become an unrestricted free agent next summer. The Lightning have Andrei Vasilevskiy under contract for the next four years, and it seems unlikely that their cap situation will allow them to re-sign Bishop. But GM Steve Yzerman may want to see how Vasilevskiy looks in 2016-17 before he trades away Bishop. The Bolts are Cup contenders right now, and Bishop has been a big reason why.

So goaltending is going to be a story either way in Dallas. If one of Lehtonen or Niemi can bounce back, then Nill might not have to do anything. If not, the pressure will be on to find a solution, and that’s never easy to do mid-season.

Under Pressure: Valeri Nichushkin

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This post is part of Stars Day on PHT…

The first thing Valeri Nichushkin needs is a contract. The 21-year-old winger is still a restricted free agent, though he’s hardly alone in that regard. So are Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau, Nikita Kucherov, Rasmus Ristolainen, Jacob Trouba, and a bunch of other good, young NHLers.

Assuming something does get done prior to training camp — and it’s likely to be a one-year deal, according to Stars beat writer Mike Heika — the next thing Nichushkin will need is a shot of confidence, because it was a tough 2015-16 for the talented Russian.

Nichushkin finished the regular season with just nine goals and 20 assists in 79 games, then added just one assist in 10 playoff appearances. He was a healthy scratch a couple of times early on. Then, in March, comments he made to a Russian newspaper forced his agent to insist, “Val loves it in Dallas.”

On the bright side, Stars GM Jim Nill thought Nichushkin looked better as the season wore on. And to be fair to Nichushkin, he did most of 2014-15 with a hip injury.

“We thought the last five games of the playoffs, he really started to look like himself,” Nill said. “He started to dominate down low and in the corners. He is only 21. I know there’s still lots of room for growth, so we’re going to be patient with him. We think he’s a big part of our future.”

Predictably, there have been trade rumors involving Nichushkin. But the Stars will be loath to part ways with such a talented, young forward. Remember that veteran wingers Patrick Sharp, 34, and Ales Hemsky, 33, are only signed for one more year. And while Dallas did draft right winger Denis Gurianov with the 12th overall pick last year, that was a surprise pick and it remains to be seen if he’ll pan out.

For Nichushkin, last year was another NHL learning experience.

“Sometimes the season is hard,” he told reporters in March, “and it’s a hard league and sometimes you have hard days.”

There will be more hard days in the future, because nothing ever goes perfectly. But a few more good days in 2016-17 would sure be nice.

Looking to make the leap: Julius Honka

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This post is part of Stars Day on PHT…

When the Stars were eliminated by the Blues in Game 6 of their second-round series, Alex Goligoski logged 25:16 of ice time, Jason Demers logged 19:57, and Kris Russell 16:17. The first two are with other teams now, the third still unsigned and not expected back.

So the Dallas defense will look significantly different in 2016-17. There’s still John Klingberg, Johnny Oduya, and Stephen Johns, the three other defenders who played in that elimination game. And Dan Hamhuis was signed in free agency, with GM Jim Nill expecting the veteran to play a big role, possibly even skating with Klingberg on the top pairing.

After those four, though, the competition for minutes should be pretty wide open. Jordie Benn was re-signed for three years, so he’s definitely in the running. Patrik Nemeth and Jamie Oleksiak both need waivers to go to the AHL, so they’ll be given a good shot to stay up. Esa Lindell got his first taste of the NHL in January, so he’s in the mix as well.

Which brings us, finally, to Julius Honka, the 20-year-old the Stars drafted with the 14th overall pick in 2014. It may take an injury or trade for Honka to get the call next season, but after piling up 44 points (11G, 33A) in 73 games for AHL Texas last season, the Stars have themselves a serious puck-moving threat waiting in the wings.

He’s been compared to Anaheim’s Sami Vatanen.

“Outstanding puck-handling, mobile defenseman,” said TSN’s Bob McKenzie when Honka was drafted. “Loves to shoot the puck, loves to walk the blue line, and he’s a guy that skates pucks out of trouble. Not a big guy (5’11, 185)… some scouts wondered how his game will translate to the next level at that size. But this Finnish player has tremendous wheels, one of the best skaters in the draft.”

As mentioned, it may be tough for Honka to make the Stars out of training camp. He can still be sent to the AHL without waivers, as can Lindell.

But whichever way it all shakes out, Nill is confident that he has the right head coach, Lindy Ruff, to make the decisions.

“Lindy has a history of working with some of the best defensemen in the world at the Olympics, so he knows what he’s doing,” said Nill, per the Dallas Morning News. “We’re in transition and this is a process, but I have full trust in our players and our coaches, and I think we’ll be better moving forward.”

Related: Dallas loves its young defensemen, which could mean goodbye for some vets

Coyotes bring back ‘proven goal scorer’ Vrbata

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The report was accurate. The Arizona Coyotes are indeed bringing back Radim Vrbata.

“We are very pleased to sign Radim to a one-year contract,” said GM John Chayka in a release. “He’s a proven goal scorer who will add skill and smarts to our lineup. We look forward to having him back in a Coyotes uniform this season.”

Vrbata, 35, has already played 428 games for the Coyotes. He had a 35-goal season for them in 2011-12 while skating on a line with Ray Whitney and Martin Hanzal. He left the Coyotes in the summer of 2014, signing a two-year contract with Vancouver. His first season with the Canucks went well and included an All-Star Game appearance; his second season was much more of a struggle and he finished with just 13 goals in 63 games.

“I’m very excited to rejoin the Coyotes,” said Vrbata. “My family and I love living in Arizona and I’m really looking forward to helping this team win.”

The base salary of Vrbata’s new deal reportedly comes with a base salary of just $1 million, but there are apparently bonuses involved. The Coyotes, of course, don’t really have to worry about cap space. They’ve got plenty of that.

Under Pressure: Chuck Fletcher

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This post is part of Wild Day on PHT…

It was just over four years ago that the Minnesota Wild opened their wallets to sign Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, but despite that “great day” in franchise history, they haven’t made it past the second round of the playoffs since.

Parise is 32 now. Suter will be 32 in January. They’re each signed through 2024-25, for a combined cap hit of around $15 million. So while there’s still time for them to come through, the general manager that signed them, Chuck Fletcher, surely had higher hopes when he convinced “two marquee players, who are both in the prime of their careers” to come to Minnesota.

The closest the Wild came to a deep playoff run was in 2013-14, when they took out the surprising Avalanche in the first round then lasted six hard-fought games against the Blackhawks. They made it to the second round again in 2014-15, getting the best of a good St. Louis team in the first round, only to be swept in four by those same ‘Hawks.

In 2015-16, the Wild took a decided step back. They still made the playoffs, but they did it with just 87 points, the fewest of any team to qualify for the postseason. They also fired head coach Mike Yeo in February, replacing him with interim bench boss John Torchetti. They lost to Dallas in the first round, to nobody’s surprise.

And not only are Parise and Suter on the wrong side of 30 now, so too are Mikko Koivu (33), Jason Pominville (33), and newly signed center Eric Staal (31).

In spite of the growing skepticism, Fletcher has remained optimistic, buoyed by ownership, which gave him a vote of confidence in April. He likes his young defense a lot, calling it the “strength of our team.” And when it comes to strengths, the blue line is a good one to have.

But there’s no question that the hiring of head coach Bruce Boudreau was a “win now” move. The Wild have some good, young players and prospects (like every team does), but their leading scorers last season were Koivu, Parise and Suter. This is still a team that’s led by its veterans.

“They need a different voice,” Fletcher said, “and Bruce’s experience, as well as his tremendous passion for the game and his hockey IQ, I believe will allow him to push this group to heights they haven’t been to yet.”

Fletcher is one of the longest-serving general managers in the NHL. In fact, only six GMs have held their jobs as long as he has. While he’s managed to build a team that’s made the playoffs the past four years, Wild fans are desperate for more, and they didn’t particularly like what they saw last season.

Perhaps Boudreau put it best.

“Hey, I’m fully aware,” he said. “I’ve been in the business for over 40 years. I know the way this works, and we’re in a winning business so you have to win.”