With Bishop out, Stars’ hopes hinge on Lehtonen again

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If this is Kari Lehtonen‘s final season with the Dallas Stars, then it’s uncomfortably fitting that, like it or not, the team’s playoff hopes hinge on his performance.

With Ben Bishop‘s latest injury sidelining him for at least two weeks (more on that here), Lehtonen stands as the go-to goalie for most – if not all – of the remaining regular-season games.

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

That’s unfortunate news, but the silver lining is that Lehtonen’s performance hasn’t lined up that poorly compared to the work Bishop’s been able to put in when he hasn’t been injured.

Bishop: 53 games played, 26-17-5 record, .916 save percentage
Lehtonen: 29 games played, 12-10-3 record, .913 save percentage

Lehtonen, 34, is putting together his best work since he generated a .919 save percentage over 65 games back in 2013-14. So, that’s the good news.

There are certainly plenty of reasons to worry about this setup, though. For one thing, Lehtonen hasn’t been able to eke out a win in four straight starts, getting tagged with the “L” in three of them. Back when the Finnish netminder was a starter, the knock on him was that he’s injury prone.

That was how Stars GM Jim Nill spun things when the Stars made the ill-fated decision to bring in Antti Niemi, actually.

Instead of the Stars sporting a two-headed Finnish monster in net, both goalies struggled, sometimes spectacularly. While it sure felt like Niemi was meant to replace Lehtonen as the top guy in Dallas, it didn’t really work out that way. Lehtonen played 43 games in 2015-16 and 59 in 2016-17, even though his save percentage never rose above the level of “frustrating backup.”

In handing Bishop a Bishop-sized six-year, $29.5 million contract, the Stars were hoping to finally find that stability in net. The big former Bolts goalie hasn’t been a disaster, yet this season has been a frustrating one of fits and starts.

[What’s holding back the Dallas Stars?]

And, so we have it: the Stars can’t escape living or dying by Lehtonen, or at least they’ll go through at least one more of such scenarios, as his $5.9M cap hit expires after 2017-18.

Even Stars fans might rub their eyes when they look at the numbers: the former Thrashers franchise netminder has been with Dallas since 2009-10, appearing in a whopping 437 regular-season games (with the same .912 save percentage he sported with Atlanta, strangely enough).

The grass has seemingly been victory greener with other goalies for the last three seasons, if not more, yet it always seems to come back to Kari.

That said, it’s up to his teammates – and coach Ken Hitchcock – to avoid adding what might be a frustrating final chapter to his long stay with the Stars.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.