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Niemi signs three-year deal, excited to join Stars

by Mark Stepneski / Dallas Stars

Two days after acquiring the negotiating rights to Antti Niemi from San Jose, the Dallas Stars signed the Finnish goaltender to a three-year contract.

The deal is worth $13.5 million for an average of $4.5 million per season.

“We explored every option with our goaltending, and we knew we had to make some changes,” said Stars GM Jim Nill. “There are two ways we could have gone. One way was the free agent route, and the other way was to make a trade using either draft picks, prospects or players off our team. Antti was the No. 1 UFA that we had targeted. Over the last four to six weeks, I have been talking to teams to see what the other options were going to be and in the end, Antti always came up as the No. 1 choice.”

Niemi, who was scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent on July 1, had options as well. He could have hit the free agent market on Wednesday but decided to work out a deal with Dallas, where he will share the net with Kari Lehtonen.

“We wanted to sign before the first of next month. I don’t think the goalie market is great right now. Either way, my agent and I talked about it a lot, and it was an easy choice to join the Stars,” Niemi said. “It’s a great time to play with one of the upcoming teams that has lots of talent. I think it’s going to be great to work with Kari, and I think we can both get an advantage out of that.”

With Lehtonen owning a $5.9 million cap hit, the Stars will spend more than $10 million in cap costs on their two goaltenders. But they think it is worth the investment. The Stars have been a one-man show in goal the past two seasons with the Lehtonen. Dallas backup goaltenders have not provided much support, posting a 14-25-1 record over the past two seasons.

“We’ve got lots of cap room and it was a situation we had to get better at,” Nill said over the weekend after making the trade. “We knew there were some games our backups weren’t good enough, and we’ve got to be better.”

Now, they’ll have a 1A/1B dynamic and Niemi said he’s fine with it, even if it means he might play fewer games than he has over the past five seasons.

“It’s a challenge but I think it also gives you a chance to work with the goalie coach and let your body recover,” Niemi said. “So, there are two sides. In the NHL you have lots of games, so I think there is room for two guys playing a lot.”

Nill said Lehtonen is on board as well.

“I’ve talked to Kari Lehtonen and he is actually very excited about it. He thinks it is going to be great,” Nill said. “The travel in the West is as tough as it can get and probably in Dallas it is worse than a lot of other teams. Between the travel, back-to-backs, and our division – if it is not the toughest it is one of the toughest. With the competition, a win here on the road, a win there in a back-to-back, a goalie gets injured, we now know that we have that covered. Kari is looking forward to being with another No. 1 goalie to push each other, to learn from each other. He was very comfortable with it.”

Nill believes Niemi and Lehtonen splitting time could benefit both goaltenders, who have logged big minutes over the past several seasons. Niemi has played 60 games or more in the past four full NHL seasons. Lehtonen has played 59 games or more in the same time frame.

“I know going back over their history, going back over the last five or six years, they are probably the top two goalies in minutes played of anybody in the Western Conference,” Nill said. “I know Kari has gone into a lot of games where he has been tired or has been injured and has had to play. We had no other choices. We had to win. This now gives us that opportunity if somebody is banged up a little bit, we’ve got a couple of days to rest him. Back-to-backs, we know we’ve got a rested and healthy goalie going in.”

As for which guy is the No. 1 goaltender, Nill said it doesn’t really matter. The only thing that does is that the Stars believe they have two guys that can do the job and that puts them in a better position than they had been.

“One guy is going to start the first game and then we are just going to play it by ear from there. They are both going to play lots of games,” Nill said. “There is going to be lots of opportunity for both of them. It’s not like one guy is playing 60 and one guy is playing 20. It is going to work itself out. You know in this game there are lots of injuries, things happen. We just know we have now taken care of that one position we were worried about. We were one injury away from being in trouble, and now we are very comfortable whichever way we go. We have two guys that can do the job and they are both comfortable with that situation.”

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. Mark Stepneski is an independent writer whose posts on DallasStars.com reflect his own opinions and do not represent official statements from the Dallas Stars. You can follow Mark on Twitter @StarsInsideEdge.

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