Stars say Niemi was top target, but still have faith in ‘elite’ Lehtonen

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SUNRISE — Dallas GM Jim Nill knew he needed to upgrade his goaltending position.

So on the second day of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, he did exactly that.

Following Saturday’s intriguing trade — acquiring Antti Niemi’s negotiating rights from San Jose for a seventh-round pick, ahead of free agency opening on July 1 — Nill said Niemi was always the club’s primary target to pair with incumbent No. 1 Kari Lehtonen.

“[Niemi] was the top guy that we targeted as a free agent, if we were going to go that route,” Nill explained. “You don’t like to lose picks, but it was a chance to get the guy, let’s talk to him and try to get a deal done.

“You don’t know where the goalie market’s going to go. It can change fast. We knew it was a position we had to take care of.”

Nill said Dallas was already “very close” to signing Niemi, who brings a wealth of experience with him to Texas. A Vezina nominee in 2013, the veteran Finn has started at least 60 games in four of the last five seasons and notched a career-high 39 wins in ’13-14.

So, what does that mean for Lehtonen?

“Kari’s still an elite goalie,” Nill explained. “We’re in a tough situation with our travel. We probably travel as much as anybody in the league, back-to-back games, I really think it’s becoming a two-goalie league now.

“Kari’s the first one to admit he had a tough year last year. He’s going to bounce back. He’s been working on changing his conditioning over the summer, and competition’s healthy. Our goal is to win the Cup and this is going to help us get there.”

It’ll be interesting to see how Niemi fits in Dallas, both in terms of finances and with Lehtonen. At 31, it’s unlikely Niemi will score as big a deal as his previous one — a four-year, $15.2 million deal with a $3.8M cap hit — and it remains to be seen how he’ll co-exist with his fellow countryman (the two were teammates on Finland’s bronze medal-winning team at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi).

To hear Nill explain it, though, money wasn’t going to get in the way of landing the guy he wanted.

“We have cap room right now,” he said. “We knew we had to improve this position, so we went this direction.”