Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Value Of The Goaltender

It was almost a month ago when the season seemed dead and gone. I will be the first to admit that I did not think the Dallas Stars had much chance of reviving their 2011-12 and figuring out a way to challenge hard for the playoffs for the first time in 4 years. You'll have to forgive my pessimism, but at the time, 2 straight wins was a rarity and 3 straight? Nearly impossible. Now, they have won 10 of their last 11. Who knew?

Roughly around Valentine’s Day, it was certainly my idea to sell, sell, sell in the NHL marketplace and consider moving assets to set up a better position for the franchise in the summer time when cap room and cash on hand would allow the Stars to make bold strikes in an attempt to finally get the mix right.

And looking back, I still suggest that there were no signs on hand that they were about to go on their best run in years. They were mediocre in goals scored and mediocre in goals allowed. They were bottom third in the league in power play and bottom third in the league in penalty kill. They were being out-shot by a healthy margin and they just flat-out looked like a team that was undermanned, underfunded, and underwhelming.

Since a loss to Nashville on Feb 19, a game that was both gutting and seemingly the final whimper on the way to the trade market, the Stars have been on a trot of historic proportions. They have pulled 21 of a possible 22 points in the last 11 games (a run that has not been exceeded since a 12 game run in 2002-03), and shot up the standings in a way that nobody following the team could have anticipated.

There are many reasons that could be listed for such a run, but as stated above, none of them seemed to be possible just a few weeks back. Somehow, the team has figured out how to play airtight hockey with a unified effort that requires precise execution. Timely scoring makes it all possible, but it starts with a team that makes sure it is not digging holes for itself on its own end of the ice by conceding too often.

And, that little trick, the one that is so valuable in hockey where you do not beat yourself nor allow your defense to be shredded, begins and ends with a goaltender that is on the top of his game.

Which is where Kari Lehtonen clearly finds himself. In Kari’s last 9 starts, he has a record of 8-0-1, with a 1.29 Goals against average and a .955 save percentage. Those statistics represent a player who is in top form, and is locked in to pucks that are flying at high velocity all around him. And yet, he finds the puck, freezes it, or sends the rebound to a place where he is comfortable.

The Stars are getting goaltending at an elite level, and when that is what happens, your blue-line gains confidence and self belief. Your penalty kill suddenly looks capable. And your game plans of shutting down some of the best lines in hockey starts to fall in to place as reasonable and attainable goals.

For the season, the tandem of Lehtonen and his backups, Andrew Raycroft early and Richard Bachman ever since have put together a team save percentage of .917. That mark is better than anything the Stars have seen since 2002-03 as well, and right there with the marks of the two teams that went to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1999 and 2000. In other words, the Stars are stopping pucks again at a very high level.

Last season it was .910 and the year before it was .905. While those slight percentage points might not impress you, understand that based on 2500 shots over the course of a season, that means 238 goals scored in 2010, 225 in 2011, and a pace for about 207 this season. If you missed the playoffs last year by a single point in the standings, you can understand how chopping 18 goals off the ledger against the same number of shots (assuming that is true) can mean. And that is the interesting part; the Stars are conceding about the same number of shots under Glen Gulatzan as they did under Marc Crawford (30.8 to 30.5).

So, on Tuesday night in Minnesota, when the Stars are clinging to a 1-goal lead, Kari was called upon to make 25 saves to preserve his 4th shutout of the season and his 2nd shutout in a row. And with :03 left in the game, he turned Kyle Brodziak away from point blank range to save the day yet again. He simply doesn’t miss when the game is on the line.

What makes Kari so good are a few things in my estimation:

#1) He makes THAT save at THAT moment. This is obviously impossible to prove. But, if you watch this team game after game for year after year, you know that the Stars last franchise goalie – Marty Turco – did not have a knack for this. It did seem that there were often cases where Turco would give up a bad goal at just the wrong time. Again, this is admittedly subjective, and yet, I can’t imagine that that very many people would argue it.

#2) He is always in the right spot. This is a tough trick for goalies because at the heart of every fan’s perception is the high-light reel goals. Did you see that goalie with the crazy kick save or glove beauty? Kari makes his share of awesome saves, but where Lehtonen is really good is when he just makes himself big and takes a puck off the center of his logo. This won’t inspire DVDs of his magical saves, but it means he is always position-sound and knows where the puck is. And his feel for rebound control is outstanding as well.

#3) His confidence is contagious. You can feel it around this team at all times. They believe they have a great goalie. Beyond that, very little else often matters in this sport. It changes the swagger of the team and the belief that a defenseman can jump into the rush or that a penalty can be taken and that Kari will make sure that he bails out any mates that require a little assistance from the man watching the store. A good goalie makes everyone taller and faster. A bad one makes everyone look worse.

The conclusion is that this team is on a shocking run and they have what everyone says you need to make a run like this – a goalie that is in the zone. In fact, to make matters better, the Stars also appear to have a backup in the talented and you Bachman that indicates you can go into Vancouver and Chicago and still get wins with your backup. Bachman has done exactly what the Stars have always needed from a backup – play once every 10 days and still keep the results at the team averages – his save percentage and goals-against levels are right where you need them.

It has been 2 years since Joe Nieuwendyk traded for what he thought was a franchise goaltender when he sent a well-regarded prospect, Ivan Vishnevskiy, to Atlanta for Lehtonen. Vishnevskiy is now playing professionally in the KHL in Russia, while the Stars are visiting Atlanta’s franchise that now lives in Winnipeg in a bit of a tangential reunion.

Very few would challenge the wisdom of that trade, and while many at the time (including me) wondered the wisdom of the Stars keeping this band together at the 2012 trade deadline, it seems rather clear that this run wouldn’t have happened if GM Joe did anything to build for the future.

The future looks like it could be now. And Lehtonen gives them a chance to really make a splash this spring.

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