There have been plenty of reasons to laugh at Stars GM Jim Nill. Every offseason, he’s the darling of the hockey world because he’s always doing SOMETHING. But as Dan McNeil once told us, “Don’t mistake activity for achievement.” Or if you prefer, Nill has had quite the Shakesperean time as GM, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing.
The biggest failing of Nill’s has been the way he has completely mangled the Stars goaltending. To be fair to him, it was his predecessor Joe Nieuwendyk who signed Kari Lehtonen to a purely insane five-year extension for $5.9 million per year, a deal that Nill will get out from under after this season. Let-One-In had only one year of being anything above average before that extension, but Nieuwendyk bit anyway and saddled Nill with a Finnish millstone.
That didn’t mean Nill had to compile the mistake, but there’s nothing he can’t go overkill on if you let him. So he decided that paying one middling goalie an exorbitant salary was so much fun, he’d pay a bad one an exorbitant salary as well, but this time he’d get to pick it! So in came Antti Niemi, who proceeded to almost single-handedly torpedo their division-winning team in the postseason two years ago and then basically all of last year. Lehtonen certainly wasn’t going to bail them out, as you don’t try and put out a fire by throwing a dead cat at it.
Nill didn’t help matters by having Lindy Ruff as coach, whom always employs a system that leaves goalies exposed, helpless, lonely, and longing for the abyss. Even good goalies struggle with it, and you need look no further than Ryan Miller as evidence. So when Ken Hitchcock was hired, you best believe he was assured that Nill would improve the goaltending. Jabba The Hitch isn’t going to have his genius undermined by leaky goaltending, you’d best believe. That certainly never happened in St. Louis. Nope, nosiree bob.
The question then becomes is Ben Bishop really the answer? On the surface you’d be inclined to say yes, with two Vezina finalist seasons in three from ’14-’16. But those are the only standout seasons on Bishop’s resume, and even then they might be a touch misleading.
Hockey in general struggles for a tried and true system or way to evaluate goaltenders, which is quite strange considering their outsized importance to teams. Still, comparing a player’s save-percentage and their expected save-percentage at least gives us some idea of how much they’re lifting their teams and how much they’re benefitting from the team in front of them. And Bishop’s ’15-’16 was only ok in that department, with a difference between the two of +0.22. But that doesn’t put him near the elite. For example, Corey Crawford’s difference averages +1.2 over the past five years. Sergei Bobrovsky has been above +1.8 the past couple years, which is why he’s carrying hardware. Braden Holtby has been over +1.0 the past two years. Matt Murray was +1.6 last year.
Even Bishop’s first Vezina-finalist season of ’13-’14 he was only +0.5, so the Lightning were doing some work for him in front of him. Work this Stars roster is almost certainly not capable of no matter what elixir Hitch is cooking up in the cauldron in his office. Yes, he almost certainly has a cauldron and you know it.
There are other concerns with Bishop. He had groin-injury problems in the previous couple of seasons, and at 31 and at 6-7 those don’t figure to get much better. Signing him until he’s 37 wasn’t exactly the stroke of genius. A $4.9 million hit isn’t going to cause anyone to reach for an oxygen mask, but it’s not brilliant either. It could be in two years that Nill is going to have to once again pay for two starting goalies, if not sooner. Which is how they got into this mess in the first place.
Still, it’s not like there were tons of options for Nill. Scott Darling was out there but the Hawks might have been antsy trading him within the division and hence would have probably asked the Stars for way more than they got from Carolina for just the right to negotiate with him. Brian Elliot? Steve Mason? Trade for Mike Smith? These are not franchise turners.
If Bishop doesn’t work out, Nill is probably going to pay with his job. Goalies are the new quarterbacks it would seem. And Bishop is good enough to not let you down. It’s just that he might not rise a team up to a level it might not quite deserve. And that’s probably what this Stars squad needs.
Game #25 Preview