When the Dallas Stars acquired goaltender Kari Lehtonen from the Atlanta Thrashers in February, GM Joe Nieuwendyk said his team was getting "a proven elite goaltender."
As the Stars prepare to start the 2010-11 season with Lehtonen as the team's full-time starter, Nieuwendyk's months-old optimism today has become a unanimous feeling throughout the organization.
"He's put a big commitment into training this summer," teammate Brad Richards told NHL.com. "I've seen him play at the top of his game at a young age. He'd steal games for Atlanta, and that's what we're expecting."
Marc Crawford said. "He's so determined to make this a great year for him."
After spending most of the season recovering from back surgery, Lehtonen made his season debut after he was acquired by the Stars. In 12 games he went 6-4-0 with a 2.81 goals-against average and .911 save percentage.
"I like his size, I like his approach," Crawford told NHL.com. "He's a very good butterfly-style goaltender that covers a lot of net. Getting to know him you get to know his competitiveness and drive. I was really impressed by his drive and determination."
Lehtonen said it took a while for him to feel comfortable in Dallas. Atlanta, which took him with the second pick of the 2002 Entry Draft, had been his only NHL hockey home since he debuted in the 2003-04 season. His best season was 2006-07, when he went 34-24-9 with a 2.79 GAA to help the Thrashers reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the only time in franchise history, but he started just two of the games as the Atlanta was swept by the New York Rangers.
Injuries and inconsistencies -- with him and the team -- slowed his development with the Thrashers, and during his rehabilitation from the back surgery, Lehtonen said he came to the realization that it was time for a change.
"I was there a long time," Lehtonen told NHL.com. "I had my ups and down. It was just one of those things. I really needed a change. Things the last couple years were rolling in the same place and not going anywhere. ... The team needed it and I needed it personally to go in a new direction. We were very good a couple years ago and when we won the division, but after that, things started going backwards almost."
So when he got the call about the trade to Dallas, he viewed it as a positive. It wasn't an easy transition, however. He was getting himself up to NHL speed while adjusting to a new team and a new town. Plus, he had to deal with splitting time with franchise icon Marty Turco.
"When I got traded I got very excited," Lehtonen said. "When I came here, it took time. It also comes with the way things go on the ice. That always is the big key. First things didn't go very well, I hadn't practiced with any kind of team because I was out with my back injury. Then I started to get comfortable, got some games in and that helped a lot. That's where it always comes from, how it goes on the ice and reflects a lot to everything."
Now that he's had a summer to get to know his teammates, coaches and the Dallas area, Lehtonen likely will be far more comfortable in 2010-11.
"The beauty of him coming in last year, he now doesn't have the hurdle of having the other players get to know him, get to know how he plays, and he can focus in on his job," Crawford said. "The added pressure is he expects to be the No. 1 guy."
He'll become the top guy at the expense of Turco, who in nine seasons became one of the most popular players in franchise history but was allowed to leave for Chicago in the offseason. Lehtonen, however, said he doesn't feel any pressure stepping into Turco's crease.
"I don't think I think about it too much," Lehtonen said. "I know that I can do well in this League. I just have to prepare myself to be able to play well. If I'm able to do that, I'm sure all the people around the organization will be happy with the way I play. ... I know I can be a good goalie and I just have to show that to everybody else, too."
Being healthy will go a long way in that regard. Lehtonen said his back feels OK thanks to an offseason spent working on conditioning and strengthening his core muscles, but he's played more than 50 games just once in six NHL seasons.
"I feel great about it," he said of his back. "It was still bugging me last year when I played. Now I haven't had any issues. I've had a good summer to work out, get it ready for this season. Everything should be good to go. I feel good on the ice right now. Makes me more excited about this (season), too."
He's not the only one excited about the coming season, and a portion of that has to do with the goaltending.
"He is as talented as they come," Stars goalie coach Mike Valley told NHL.com. "It's just been a matter of piecing together the things in his game, not only on the ice but off the ice, and mentally, as well. He's got a ton of potential."
Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org