Stars want Niemi, Lehtonen to compete for job


Kari Lehtonen will compete with Antti Niemi for playing time in 2015-16 . (Tony Gutierrez/AP)

Jim Nill is so intent on making sure the Dallas Stars don’t miss the playoffs again because of goaltending that he’s willing to commit more money to the crease than any other NHL team.

The Stars signed Antti Niemi to a $13.5-million, three-year contract on Monday and plan to use him in a platoon with Kari Lehtonen. That means Dallas has committed $10.4-million to goaltending next season — or 14.5 per cent of their allowable space under the cap.

It’s by design, too.

“With the travel in the league nowadays, the back-to-back games, the pressure to win, the injuries — it’s a must to have two goalies that can play,” Nill said Saturday at the NHL draft. “The league’s going to get so competitive we’re all going to be five or 10 points from each other.

If you lose three or four games at the wrong time because you don’t have the proper goaltending it could cost you a playoff spot.”

Lehtonen struggled mightily last season and the Stars fell seven points short of the final wild-card spot in the Western Conference. The 31-year-old posted a .903 save percentage over 65 appearances — the worst numbers of his NHL career.

Niemi is a former Stanley Cup-winner with Chicago and had his rights acquired from San Jose over the weekend for a seventh-round pick. The Stars didn’t want to see him go anywhere else in free agency.

The goal is to have Lehtonen and Niemi — roommates at the Sochi Olympics while representing Finland — compete for playing time next season.

“Kari’s the first one to admit he had a tough year last year,” said Nill. “He’s going to bounce back. We’re changing his conditioning over the summer.

“Competition’s healthy. Our goal is to win the Cup and this is going to help us get there.”

The next highest team in terms of cap hit for goalies is the New York Rangers at $8.5-million and all of that belongs to Henrik Lundqvist. It will go up once backup Antti Raanta is signed.

Columbus is third at $8.225-million for Sergei Bobrovsky and Curtis McElhinney.

The main reason Dallas can contemplate such a serious financial commitment to its crease is because it has the rest of its core locked up at favourable cap numbers. In the short term, this is money the team can
afford to spend.

“We’re sitting good right now financially,” said Nill. “Now that changes, as we see with the cap system; that changes over the next two years.

“Right now we’re a very cap friendly team.”

Don’t be surprised if that changes before the current deals for Lehtonen and Niemi expire.

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