Antti Niemi

Stars’ biggest question: Will the goalie gamble work?

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If you were putting together a list of the best goalies in the NHL, how long would it take you to get to Antti Niemi or Kari Lehtonen?

Niemi won a Stanley Cup with Chicago back in 2010 despite some up-and-down playoff performances. He’s been a Vezina finalist once and is 31 years old.

Despite being the second pick of the 2002 NHL Draft, Lehtonen (also 31) has never been a Vezina finalist. He has eight (mostly lousy) games of playoff experience in his career and is associated as much with injury issues and any great on-ice accomplishment.

Neither Niemi nor Lehtonen is a “bad” goalie, but it may be optimistic to call either one of them “elite.”

Well, unless you’re working for the Stars, perhaps.

“In the end, I think it’s going to be a split situation. I think it’s going to work well,” GM Jim Nill told The Ticket back in early August. “Like I said, we’re fortunate because of our cap situation that we can do it. I know that if other teams had the cap room, they’d do it. You can’t get any better than having two No. 1 goalies in your lineup.”

Here are a few bottom-line statements about this situation.

Dallas is spending $10.4 million on this combination, and at any time, they’ll either have a $5.9 million goalie (Lehtonen) or a $4.5 million one (Niemi) watching on. Niemi and Lehtonen make up about 15 percent of the Stars’ cap spending as of this moment, according to General Fanager’s numbers.

Tyler Seguin hints at the Stars at least acknowledging their defensive issues, but do they possess the personnel or system to make life any better for their netminders? The Stars have reason to brag about a deep pool of defensive prospects, yet you have to wonder if that only means they’ll get to that point sometime after 2015-16.

The Stars have a lot riding on their unusual two-headed monster in net, and there’s a significant risk that this experiment may backfire.

It’s Dallas Stars day at PHT

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Whether you like the moves he’s made since becoming Dallas Stars GM or not, you really can’t accuse Jim Nill of being lazy.

Every summer, the Stars seem to be one of the “winners” of the off-season, yet they’re still searching for their first playoff series win since that surprisingly deep run in 2007-08.

The 2014-15 season might just be the last one where they were able to play the “scrappy upstart” role, even if they seem to carry somewhat similar strengths and weaknesses into next season. Broadly speaking, at least.

Off-season recap

Expectations are rising each year, and with good reason.

The Stars nabbed Antti Niemi’s rights from the San Jose Sharks and then handed him a three-year, $13.5 million contract. Backup goaltending – and let’s be honest, goaltending in general – was a big sore spot for Dallas last season. Now Nill is spending $10.4 million on “two No. 1 goalies.”

That was a big enough change in itself, yet Nill had another trick up his sleeve, sending Trevor Daley and Ryan Garbutt to the Chicago Blackhawks for Patrick Sharp and Stephen Johns.

Each summer, the Stars have landed a big-name forward in a trade:

2013: Tyler Seguin
2014: Jason Spezza
2015: Sharp

You can’t do that forever and also retain a ton of cap space, even with bargains for Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, so now Dallas is close to the ceiling. Especially after blowing much of their remaining budget on Johnny Oduya.

There weren’t many subtractions beyond assets handed over in trades and the departure of Shawn Horcoff, so the Stars look imposing on paper. Now it’s up to Lindy Ruff to make it all work.

Seguin on 2014-15: ‘We felt we could outscore every team’

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The Dallas Stars already had a dynamic one-two punch in Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin when they added Jason Spezza last summer. Having that trio leading the charge offensively created a lot of hype about the team going into the 2014-15 campaign and listening to Seguin, it sounds like they bought into it to their detriment.

“We felt we had all these top players, all this firepower that could score a ton of goals. Automatically in training camp we were scoring a ton, but we weren’t focusing on defense,” Seguin told Sportsnet.

“That’s not the on the coaches or GMs at all. That was all on us. We felt we could outscore every team.”

In their first eight games, the Stars had scored a remarkable 28 goals and yet they were still a so-so 4-2-2 because they had surrendered as many markers. Then their offense trailed off briefly and it became apparent they weren’t ready to win low scoring games. Through Dec. 31, the Stars had a 17-14-5 record, but had only won three times when scoring two or fewer goals. By that point they were ninth in goals scored (106) and the fourth worst team in goals allowed (117).

“We were scoring a lot but not winning games because we can’t play defense,” Seguin said. “Last year, our start was terrible. I don’t think we had the right attitude in training camp, and I think that’s going to be a huge stressing point [this] September.”

Dallas has once again had an active summer, adding forward Patrick Sharp, defensemen Johnny Oduya and Stephen Johns, and goaltender Antti Niemi. This is a team with plenty of potential, but they also have a lot to prove.

Nill believes Stars have ‘two No. 1 goalies’

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Kari Lehtonen won’t have to play hurt next season.

Lehtonen made 65 appearances last season including a stretch, which had him as the goaltender of record in 14 of 17 games.

The Stars simply weren’t comfortable in starting Anders Lindback who eventually found his way to the AHL’s Texas Stars before being dealt to the Buffalo Sabres.

“There was a lot of games last year, people don’t know this part of it, where Kari Lehtonen was pretty banged up and we didn’t have a choice but to ride him,” Stars GM Jim Nill told Dallas radio station The Ticket per The Dallas Morning News. “Now he knows that he can get four or five days off and get re-energized.”

Jhonas Enroth and Jussi Rynnas also had stints in the Stars’ net last season – neither gave Nill confidence he had a reliable replacement when Lehtonen needed a night off.

As a result, Nill went out and acquired the rights to Antti Niemi and gave him a three-year, $13.5 million contract in June.

“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,” said Nill. “I think it’s going to be a great competition. I’ve talked to both goalies. They’re very comfortable with it. They think it’s going to be very great for them. They know that they got a chance if they go on a run winning five or six games in a row, good for them. And once they start to get tired or something they have another guy who can come in and play for them.”

Lehtonen was 34-17-10 last season to go along with a 2.94 G.A.A. and a .903 save percentage.

Niemi meanwhile made 61 appearances with the San Jose Sharks posting a 31-23-7 record to go along with a 2.59 G.A.A. and a .914 save percentage.

Together they’ll have a cap hit of $10.4 million next season.

“We think it’s going to be a split job. Now someone might get it and run with it for a while. We’ll play it by ear,” said Nill. “There’s always the unknown. There’s injuries. So many things can happen. Somebody can get sick. You don’t know what’s going to happen.

“In the end, I think it’s going to be a split situation. I think it’s going to work well. Like I said, we’re fortunate because of our cap situation that we can do it. I know that if other teams had the cap room, they’d do it. You can’t get any better than having two No. 1 goalies in your lineup.”

Campbell credits ECHL stint for turning his game around

When Jack Campbell was sent from the AHL to the ECHL in February, it wasn’t a particularly promising sign for a young goalie who was once so highly touted.

At the time, Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill explained the move like this: “He’s going there to play games, and that’s exactly what he needs right now, so it’s a positive thing.”

But let’s face it, the ECHL was not where the Stars had forecast Campbell to be playing almost five years after they made him the 11th overall pick in the 2010 draft.

To Campbell’s credit, he made the best of his short stint with the Idaho Steelheads, and now he’s feeling a lot better about his game.

From the Stars’ website:

Campbell played seven games in 13 days with Idaho, posting a 5-2-0 record, 1.73 goals-against average and .945 save percentage.

“Just playing, getting away from everybody a little bit,” said Scott White, Dallas Stars Director of Hockey Operations and Texas Stars GM. “He just played. He played a lot of hockey in a short period of time. I think he had fun.”

“I think it was just knowing I was the guy down there,” Campbell said. “I played seven in a row, which was nice. The boys had a lot of confidence in me and the coaches. I relaxed down there and came back with the same attitude and everything kind of took care of itself.”

The dividends continued to roll in when Campbell returned to the AHL. He went 0-1-1 in his first two starts, but then went 11-3-0 with a 2.45 goals-against average and .924 save percentage to finish the season.

Clearly, the Stars haven’t given up on Campbell. They re-signed the 23-year-old in June.

“Jack winning 11 out of his last 14 games last season was huge in solidifying another postseason appearance for Texas,” Nill said. “We fully expect him to build off of that success and continue his growth.”

It’s hard to say what the future holds for Campbell, but with Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi signed for the next three years, there aren’t currently any openings on the big club’s roster.

Campbell knows he has to be patient.

“My goal is to be a starting goalie in the National Hockey League for the Dallas Stars,” he said. “That’s my main goal, but that’s a process. I have to show that I can be a starting goalie for the Texas Stars.”