Goaltending is key in any season, but in 2013 it could be even more important due to the shortened season and compressed schedule.
“Goaltending is going to be critical,” said Stars coach Glen Gulutzan. “You look at the tournaments – Spengler Cup, World Juniors, all those things – goaltending is crucial, and through a shortened season it becomes very crucial as well.”
And the Stars feel their goaltending depth can help. The Stars have three goaltenders in camp –Kari Lehtonen, Richard Bachman and Cristopher Nilstorp – and feel good about all of them. Lehtonen is coming off another stellar season, Bachman pushed his way into the NHL last season and Nilstorp, signed as a free agent out of the Swedish Elite League this summer, has played extremely well with the Texas Stars this season.
Lehtonen and Bachman won’t see any game action prior to the season starting due to the lack of exhibition games, but Nilstorp has played 28 games in the AHL, and that’s a plus for the Stars.
“To start training camp, having three guys is a good thing,” said Stars goaltending coach Mike Valley. “You have one guy that has played and played really well. You have two guys that have been training but you can’t replicate game situations. You just take it one day at a time because they look great in practice, but it’s going to take a little bit of time for them to get everything going. We’re lucky. We have three goalies who are pretty darned skilled and ready to play at this level.”
And the Stars haven’t ruled out carrying three goaltenders at times during the season, especially early in on with the Stars playing a lot of games in a short amount of time.
“We could carry three. This is an ongoing evaluation,” said Gulutzan. “We have one goalie that we think highly of in Nilstorp that has played. He’s played a lot of games, he’s played back-to-back and he’s played three in four nights, so he’s ready. We have the other two –Bacher and Lehts. Obviously our No.1 is Lehts, he’s going to be ready and there’s no question he is going to carry the workload. Bachs is getting ready. He’s worked tremendously hard through this lockout. But until we get to see through this week were they are really at when the bullets are flying, we’ll make that decision. It’s nice that we have a guy that his ready if need be.”
Here’s a brief look at the Stars’ three camp goaltenders.
Lehtonen put up some career-best numbers last season, ranking eighth in the league in save percentage (.922) and tenth in goals against average (2.33). He was rewarded with a five-year, $29.5 million contract extension just prior to the lockout.
The 29-year-old, acquired from Atlanta in February 2010, has established himself as the No.1 netminder in Dallas over the past two seasons, and the new contract shows the Stars are counting on him for years to come.
“I feel every year I become a bigger part of the group,” Lehtonen said. “It’s a good feeling knowing that guys rely on me, and that pushes me forward to do better. I know that they need me, and I need them. “
Lehtonen spent most of the lockout in Dallas, skating with other Stars players. The lockout gave him some time to adjust to a big change in his life.
“It was good for me, my first son was born right when the lockout started,” he said. “I had some time to learn how to be a dad. Now, I am ready to get back to playing.”
Stars coaches weren’t allowed contact with players during the lockout, but Valley liked what he saw of Lehtonen when players returned to Frisco last week. Those conditioning problem that were an issue for Lehtonen during his Atlanta days are a thing of the past.
“That growth and maturity has definitely helped him. Five or six years ago we would have been worried about him,” said Valley. “It was a tough situation during the lockout because we weren’t allowed to talk to them or do anything, so you are putting your trust in the player. He’s no different than anybody else, he’s worked hard.
“He had a new kid, so maybe the timing is actually good for him to get through the initial stages of learning to be a dad. When I see him now he looks excited, and I can’t wait to get out on the ice with him.”
Bachman started last season in the AHL, came up to the NHL in late November due to an injury to Lehtonen and never looked back. Bachman, who wrested the backup job from Andrew Raycroft midseason, posted an 8-5-1 record, 2.77 goals against average and a .910 save percentage.
He spent most of the lockout in the Dallas area, skating and working out with other Stars players. He took a couple online courses and is now one course away from a degree in business management.
Bachman, who signed a one-way contract worth $625,000 in July, comes into camp as the Stars’ No. 2 goaltender, but he’s getting pushed from below by Nilstorp, who has been shining with the Texas Stars. Bachman relishes the challenge.
“That’s good for the organization. I hope I push Kari, I hope Nilstorp pushes me and Jack (Campbell) pushes. That creates competition and everyone works on getting better,” said Bachman. “It’s just like last year, I was trying to push to get here, and even when you are here during the regular season you are being pushed. It’s not just a training camp thing, it’s a yearlong thing. It’s the position; there only two of us on the team and somebody is always going to be pushing.”
Bachman, 25, has pushed his way up the goaltender ranks despite some doubts, many surrounding his lack of size at 5-10, 175 pounds. He has a knack of proving the doubters wrong.
“Bachs is one of the most mentally tough goaltenders I’ve ever seen or worked with,” said Valley. “He has the perfect mentality to be an NHL goaltender. He doesn’t get fazed by things that are said or done, he just goes about his business. You’ve got to think his whole life he’s been told he can’t do something because of his size, but he just keeps proving everybody wrong.”
After a couple of solid seasons in the Swedish Elite League, Nilstorp was looking for a new challenge.
“I wanted to compete against the best players in the world,” said Nilstorp, who helped lead Farjestad to the Swedish Elite League title in 2010-11. “I wanted to see what I could do.”
So, he signed as a free agent with the Dallas Stars over the summer. He kicked off his North American career with the Texas Stars of the AHL, and he’s been playing well. Nilstorp is 16-10-0 with a 2.13 goals against average and a .916 save percentage. He ranks fourth in the AHL in both goals against average and wins, and is tied for second in shutouts with four. Impressive numbers when you consider he got off to a bit of a slow start as he adjusted to the North American game.
“It was hard at the start,” he said. “The game was way faster, guys shoot the puck really good. I needed some time at the start and had a lot of things to work on, and I tried every day to be better.”
The Stars have been impressed with Nilstorp, who will turn 29 next month.
“As we expected, there was a little bit of getting acclimated to the North American style of play. Some guys don’t adjust, but he managed to do it quickly,” said Valley. “He’s got a lot of skill. He’s a mature goaltender that handles ups and downs really well. I think he’s been great. I do believe he can play at the NHL level, but until somebody plays at that level you are never 100 percent sure. Every indication says, yes, he can, but obviously he has to be given the chance to do so.”