History teaches us that one of the key ingredients required to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup is a true number one goalie. Teams that won often did so with Hall of Fame goaltending from guys like Martin Brodeur, Patrick Roy, or Eddie “the Eagle” Belfour. As a Dallas fan of the 90’s and early 00’s, one of your many magical memories of that era has to be the, “Eddie’s Better,” chant. You know firsthand what world class netminding means to an organization.
Today though, while not exclusive obviously, the best teams tend to have good puck stoppers rather than great goaltenders. Guys that can make the first save and rely on the talented team in front of them to secure puck possession are all the rage. Today’s game is more concerned with what happens after the first save. If the team has that ability to jump on loose pucks and quickly transition to a lethal offensive attack … think division rival Chicago Blackhawks or the Pittsburgh Penguins … that team is probably one of the top teams in the league. The days of temperamental, star netminders seems to be a thing of the past.
Unfortunately, despite a lack of true high end talent in the crease these days, goalies still sign $5 to $7 million contracts every summer. As much as fans want to believe their team shouldn’t be the one spending money, and more importantly significant cap space, in goal, we frequently observe one team after another lock up good-not-great goalies for significant term and dollar amounts. Our Dallas Stars did the same thing with fan favorite Kari Lehtonen not long ago.
Yes I do seem down on these goalies, but I admit I supported re-signing Lehts. Truthfully I’m more than pleased still with his contract. No, I don’t want to be one of “those” teams that have a good goalie making a ton of money, but I recognize how valuable Lehtonen is to this organization. League wide he’s no superstar. Most people still judge him entirely on his Atlanta days and love of Big Macs. They don’t have a true appreciation for how much he’s elevated a bad team in Dallas. The Stars will become a good team, soon in my opinion, and that transition from mediocre to good starts in net. He is the main reason Dallas could potentially make the playoffs next season
Today I want to look at Dallas’ depth in goal this season and beyond. You’ll be hard pressed to find a Dallas fan disappointed by the fact Kari Lehtonen is the team’s undisputed top goalie again this season. There are always going to be injury concerns with the big Finn, and he will likely miss at least one important two to four week stretch during the season. Regardless, he is a true star on this team. He may never receive recognition from the league for his efforts, but the Dallas Stars truly live and die by his performance. One thing many fans can agree on is Kari seems to get run down late in the year. In the past you could probably blame that on conditioning, but I feel the late season lull is caused more so by Dallas failing to produce a competent backup who would allow Lehts some time off late in the season.
Hopefully, Jim Nill made the right decision at backup goaltender this off-season when he signed Dan Ellis to a 2 year contract paying him an average of $900,000 per season. 13 years ago, Ellis was a 2nd round pick for the Dallas Stars, but he’s probably better known for #DanEllisProblems. He underestimated or totally ignored the backlash created by a well-paid athlete complaining about money on a social network. On the ice, Ellis isn’t a starting goalie, but he has shown the ability to fill in when a starter goes down to injury. Most recently, he tried unsuccessfully to keep the Carolina Hurricanes treading water after losing starter Cam Ward. I do believe Ellis is a solid backup for this team, and I’m not concerned about him in the crease for several weeks if Lehts experiences another wonky groin. He is the most capable backup they’ve employed in sometime, but this isn’t a guy who can carry the team in my opinion if Kari suffers a devastating injury.
Dallas’ 3rd goalie has played a big role in recent history, and I expect that could be true this year as well. Like Kari, Ellis has experience some injury issues including a 40 game stretch in 2012 he missed with a groin issue. Christopher Nilstorp appears to be the #3 if they need a goalie in the NHL, but I don’t believe that means he is the clear cut starter down in Austin. Jack Campbell will push him in Austin, but I don’t believe the team is prepared for Jack to make the jump to the NHL just yet. A significant injury to Lehtonen along with struggles from Ellis and Nilstorp could change the situation, but I do believe it’s doubtful Campbell earns his first NHL start this season.
Nilstorp did not endear himself to Dallas fans at the NHL level, but fans lucky enough to view him in the AHL with Texas saw a fundamentally sound goalie. Despite a 3 game collapse to end the season by the entire team against Oklahoma City, Nilstrop was actually performing at an impressive clip as Texas’ go-to-goalie in the AHL playoffs. You’d have to imagine this will be Nilstorp’s final opportunity to make an impact at the NHL level. He turns 30 years old in February, and I’m sure it will be hard to ignore Swedish teams attempting to lure him back to his homeland if the only NHL option on the table is another two-way contract. To realize his NHL dreams, Nilstorp must outshine experienced backup Ellis by a significant margin or hope the injury bug hits one of the two men penciled in ahead of him. I don’t think it would be out of the question though to see him steal the backup job mid-season if Ellis isn’t careful. We’ve recently seen a veteran fail to impress and lose his job mid-season when Bachman unseated Raycroft.
I’ve already touched on Jack Campbell in a previous post, and I do believe he’s poised for a breakout season. He’ll have a tough battle with Nilstorp in net, but Campbell is finally more concerned about becoming the best possible goalie he can be than with when he will arrive in the NHL. Of all Dallas goalies, you would expect him to make the biggest improvements last season, and I feel confident he did just that. While he was winning gold medals for Team USA and struggling in the OHL, Campbell was an athletic goalie who was aggressive and often out of position. You could tell he wanted to win games on his own rather than make the smarter, easier save that would require him to have faith in his teammates. That loaner mentality seems to have been replaced by technically superior hockey. He’s still a highly athletic goalie, but his movement is no longer overstated and detrimental to his team. That said, Campbell is no longer the clear cut goalie of the future. Dallas spent another high draft pick on a talented goalie in the 2013 draft.
Not yet Dallas Stars property, Josh Robinson will serve as the starting goaltender for the Idaho Steelheads and primary call up for the Texas Stars. This season is an important one for Robinson. If he hopes to earn an NHL contract in the Stars organization, his best opportunity will likely be next summer to claim the back up job in the AHL behind Jack Campbell. A stellar season in the ECHL with quality spot starts in the AHL could secure him a two-way NHL deal for the 2014-15 season. Fail to impress, and you could see Dallas searching the free agent market for an AHL back up to push Campbell.
Philippe Desrosiers started over 60% of his team’s games last years in the QMJHL, and you can expect he’ll likely see his games played rise from 43 last season to between 50 and 55 games this year. Zachary Fortin appears to be set to backup Desrosiers once again, and it would be a major disappointment if Philippe is unable to keep his competition on the bench most nights in the Q. Despite outclassing the competition for Canada at the U-18 tournament in Sochi, he did not earn a spot on the U-20 preliminary camp. However, you would expect that an impressive first half to the season could earn him a look in the December selection camp. Truthfully though, his best opportunity to take the reigns in the U-20 for Canada will come next year in his final year of eligibility. With his performance and Sochi and draft position this summer, you’d have to consider it an upset if he fails to make the U-20 squad next year with his main competition likely being fellow 2013 draft pick Zachary Fucale.
Across the pond, Henri Kiviaho appears to be set for his first pro season in Finland. Although he still has not played a single SM-Liiga game, a review of KalPa’s roster leads you to believe he’s a Top 2 goalie in that system and the backup goalie for this coming season. Even better news, the team’s 29 year apparent starting goalie Pekka Tuokkola is not your typical true number one goalie. His career in the SM-Liiga has mostly been as a platoon goalie. He found his way onto the KalPa roster last season after losing the starting job mid-season to a younger goalie. After he was demoted to Mestis (Division 2), his contract with Tappara was terminated, and he ultimately signed on with KalPa in January when their starting goalie was dealing with some hip issues.
Do not underestimate Tukkola though. He does have several strong statistical seasons, and based on the team’s reaction to signing him this past January, they feel like they’ve landed a top goalie. Kiviaho lacks any real experience against pro players so it would seem doubtful he is a threat to steal a starting job Game 1 of the 2013-14 season, but the team seems to have been smart about adding a solid goalie in Tuokkola that will not prevent Kiviaho from playing in 15 to 20 games this year as he adapts to the pro game. Plus, Tuokkola only signed a one year deal with KalPa so the starting job in 2014-15 is wide open and probably not out of the question for Kiviaho.
Finally, Maxime Lagace is by no means an uncontested starter for Cape Breton. Three years younger than Lagace, Alex Bureau has similar stats as Maxime from last season. The last time Lagace was faced with competition, he failed to hold off the younger goalie. At this point, I think most fans would agree Lagace appears to be a failed free agent signing, but it would be unfair to write the 20 year old off just yet despite a disappointing performance last season. Depending on his performance this year with a new team, Lagace is likely headed to the ECHL or CHL for the 2014-15 season. He will probably face competition in the ECHL from a free agent NCAA goalie. Like Robinson, I would expect Texas to secure the services of a graduating NCAA goalie to play in the ECHL next season.
The outlook in goal for the Dallas Stars does seem bright. Campbell and Desrosiers seem to have the best pedigree to become potential NHL starters, but I wouldn’t count Kiviaho out before seeing his performance in the SM-Liiga this year. Trying to predict timeliness for these players is probably a waste of time, but you’d think Campbell’s first real opportunity for full time NHL backup duty would come after Ellis’ 2 year contract is completed. Honestly though, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Campbell spend three more full seasons in the AHL before he serves as a full time backup to Kari. Kiviaho’s future with the team will be in doubt until Dallas signs him to a contract because he unfortunately just missed on the new rules governing European draft picks. If he’s unsigned by this summer, he will reenter the NHL draft. With so many good prospects in Dallas’ system, they always must be conscious of the 50 contract limit. Therefore, Kiviaho will need to show the ability to succeed in Finland this year if Dallas is going to allocate one of the their limited contracts to Henri in 2014 and beyond since it’s unlikely he’ll be a realistic option in North America for several seasons.