Of all the offseason questions the Dallas Stars have to answer, the one at the top of their list is what to do at the goaltender position. Kari Lehtonen is coming off of his worst statistical season with the Stars, and they currently do not have another goaltender under contract who has ever spent significant time in the NHL. Jhonas Enroth, the man who backstopped Dallas to a season-ending four-game winning streak, is an unrestricted free agent, and the Stars have to decide if they feel he fits into their future plans. The Stars front office has to determine who they want, how much they are worth, and if they need someone primarily in a backup role, or someone who can challenge for the number one spot. It is possible that no other decision made this summer will have a greater impact on the 2015-2016 season.
The tough part is that it also might be the hardest decision to make accurately.
All across the NHL, this season has showcased the unpredictable nature of goaltenders. The position that effects a team's fortunes more than any other has also been the one to deliver the most surprising storylines.
This year we saw a number of netminders with elite names turn in subpar performances. In some cases, it cost them their role as starters. At the same time, we also saw a group of completely unheralded goaltenders rescue teams from the dead and become stars in the process. Two stories - one in each conference - stood out as the largest.
In the West, it was Devan Dubnyk who went on a run for the ages with the Minnesota Wild. Minnesota was in a tailspin when they traded for Dubnyk in January. All it cost was a third-round pick to Arizona. The Wild were Dubnyk's fourth NHL team in less than 12 months. It was a move the Minnesota GM later admitted was an 'act of desperation' by his team. Boy, did it pay off.
Dubnyk responded by playing 38 straight games, going 27-9-2, posting a 1.78 GAA, a .936 save percentage, five shutouts, and was recently named a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, awarded to the league's top goaltender for the season. Before his Minnesota fairytale, both the Edmonton Oilers and the Arizona Coyotes had traded Dubnyk off their roster within a calendar year. In case you needed a reminder, those teams finished 27 and 33 points behind any other Western Conference team this season, and both deemed Dubnyk expendable.
Out East, the Cinderella story belonged to Andrew Hammond, an undrafted, 27-year old rookie netminder, who almost single-handedly revived the Ottawa Senators season. Hammond came out of nowhere and posted an almost-fictional record of 20-1-2 in 23 starts. He kept his opponents to two-or-fewer goals in his first dozen NHL starts and 18 of 23 overall. He finished the year with a 1.79 GAA, a .941 save percentage, a catchy nickname, and a free lifetime supply at the Golden Arches
, while leading the Sens to the playoffs.
While Dubnyk and Hammond were the most notable surprise stories in net, they were hardly the only ones. Everywhere you looked, starting goaltenders were being replaced with lesser-known backstops who caught fire. In Detroit, Jimmy Howard lost his job to Petr Mrazek. In St. Louis, Brian Elliot was supplanted by Jake Allen. In Winnipeg, Michael Hutchinson stole the job away from Ondrei Pavelec. Then a month later, Pavelec stole it right back.
Injuries helped the emergence of backups in other cities as well. When Ryan Miller went down in Vancouver in late February, the Canucks season appeared to be in jeopardy. However, Eddie Lack stepped up and went 12-6-2 with a 2.36 GAA and .927 save percentage to close the year, and remained the series-starting goaltender even with Miller in the lineup.
It was a similar scene in New York when Rangers goaltender, Henrik Lundqvist was lost for two months in early February. The Rangers maintained their pace in King Henrik's absence thanks to the performance of Cam Talbot. With Lundqvist sidelined, Talbot went 16-4-3 with a 2.16 GAA and .929 save percentage. He played an enormous role in helping the Rangers finish the season with the best record in the NHL, and if the incumbent number-one wasn't named Henrik Lundqvist, Talbot might have remained the starter heading into the postseason.
For the record, just like Hammond, both Lack and Talbot are 27-year old, undrafted guys.
The game of 'Musical Goaltenders' didn't end at the start of the playoffs either. Chicago became center stage for the big goaltending story of round one as Corey Crawford stumbled out of the gate and little-known netminder, Scott Darling came to the rescue. Before his meteoric rise to fame, Darling's career path could have doubled as a witness protection identity. Four years ago, Hammond was playing in the Southern Professional Hockey League. It is about as low-level a pro league as exists in the sport. While there, he went 6-22-0 with a 3.83 GAA and .892 save percentage. That's not a misprint. Both numbers were literally dead-last among all qualifying goaltenders in the entire league. After "graduating" to the ECHL two seasons later, he climbed to the AHL last year, and made his NHL debut this season.
Would you ever believe that someone with a resume like that could replace a Stanley Cup-winning goaltender on one of the premier teams in the NHL, and do so in breathtaking fashion? Well, that's exactly what happened. After Crawford faltered, Darling saved the day by winning his first three playoff games. In those games he played 229 minutes (five overtimes) and stopped 127 of 131 shots against. His line? A 3-0 record with a 1.05 GAA and .969 save percentage.
Quite a change from the SPHL four years ago, wouldn't you say?
The point of all of these stories is that this year has proved that it is extremely difficult - if not virtually impossible - to correctly predict what you're going to get out of your goaltender. The Stars themselves experienced an unexpected swing. A year ago, Dallas probably doesn't make the playoffs if not for Lehtonen's brilliance. This year they were often looking for "that save" that they didn't get.
Additionally, this season exhibited that while changes can easily come from year-to-year, they also come from night-to-night within the same season. Take the opening round of the playoffs as an example.
Remember the three big stories? Dubnyk, Hammond, and Darling? Well, let's look at how the first round treated them.
Dubnyk held his form in the playoffs and led his club to a six-game upset victory. He sparkled in the decisive final two games, stopping 66 of 68 shots against as Minnesota advanced.
His Eastern Conference counterpart, meanwhile, did not have the same success. Hammond went winless in two playoff games, including allowing a key soft goal in overtime, and in the process, surrendered Ottawa's starting job back to Craig Anderson.
By the way, Anderson, who in over 400 career NHL games has a combined 2.72 GAA and .915 save percentage, was incredible for the rest of the series. He stopped 138 of 142 shots in four playoff games with a 0.97 GAA and .972 save percentage. Go figure.
Darling's incredible story also took a twist. After allowing only four goals on 127 shots in his first three games, he allowed seven on his next 40. He was pulled in Game Six, and Crawford, who had allowed nine goals in four periods, played 49 minutes of shutout hockey to lead the Blackhawks to a series-clinching win over Nashville. Ah, the circle of goaltending. These kind of swings make Jekyll and Hyde look like identical twins.
Sometimes hot stays hot. Sometimes it becomes lukewarm. And other times it turns ice cold. So, how can you make the proper decision when the best goaltenders in the world are susceptible to such a rapid rise or fall in performance at any time?
Seriously. The best ones.
Another Vezina Trophy Finalist is All-World Nashville Predators netminder, Pekka Rinne. His absence due to injury last year was widely considered the main culprit in Nashville's poor season. With a healthy Rinne, the Preds were on fire at the start of the year. However, his play late in the season began to decline. From the start of the year through February 18, he went 34-7-2 with a 1.94 GAA and .932 save percentage. The Predators were atop the NHL standings, and had a six-point cushion on their closest neighbor.
After February 18, however, Rinne posted a 2.67 GAA and a .903 save percentage, including a less-than-stellar postseason. He went 9-14-4 and the Preds ended the year with a first-round exit. Same guy.
Same team. Same season.
It's a harsh reality in the sport of hockey. Whether it's a rise from nowhere or a fall from grace, most teams only go as far as their goaltending takes them. And this season has taught us that whether they are big-names or no-names, for better or for worse, goaltenders are about as predictable as a lottery draw. (Unless your team has Carey Price. Then you're covered.)
So, given all of that, what are the Stars to do? Regardless of the uncertainty in the answers, the questions remain all the same. The Stars must, and will, make some huge decisions about how to fortify their goaltending in the coming weeks and months. They will use whatever information and intuition they have, and try to make the best move for the upcoming season, as well as future years. Considering the volatility at the position, it's neither an easy nor enviable task.
However, whatever route they choose, just remember that as this season showed us, we might not know the true merits of any moves until well into next year. The Stars could land a big name or maybe one you've never heard. Either way, no one can know for sure what type of results a goaltending move will yield.
Just ask Arizona, Minnesota, or Vezina Trophy Finalist, Devan Dubnyk.Josh Bogorad is the Pre-Game, Post-Game, and Intermission host for Stars television broadcasts. He can be seen 30 minutes before face-off on ‘Stars Live’ and immediately after games all season long on Fox Sports Southwest. Follow him on Twitter at @JoshBogorad.