It's rare to hear a 25-year-old goalie admit to feeling older and wiser at this early stage of his professional career. But that's precisely the mindset of Atlanta's Kari Lehtonen
From March 6-16, Lehtonen was one of the League's hottest goalies, winning five-straight starts while posting a 1.18 goals-against average, .966 save percentage and two shutouts.
His 5-1 victory against the Southeast Division-leading Washington Capitals
on March 16 was a thing of beauty when he stopped a career-high 49 shots in earning his 18th victory of the season. The win also enabled Lehtonen to improve to 10-6-2 against the Caps in his five NHL seasons. In fact, behind Lehtonen's heroic night, Washington's Alex Ovechkin
was held without a point for the first time in 11 games.
"It's one of the best performances I've seen him give," Thrashers coach John Anderson
said after the game. "He was square on all those shots and was very confident out there, just batting pucks away."
Truth be told, Lehtonen's confidence down the stretch has been at an all-time high.
"I think I'm doing a better job focusing in on the right things on and off the ice and with the way I get ready for games," Lehtonen said. "It used to be very hard for me because back in Finland, we didn't play so many games and it was a lot easier to focus to each game. Here, you play every night or every other night and sometimes I was still thinking about the game we just played and not the game and the task ahead of me and that made it a lot harder."
Thrashers General Manager Don Waddell has always realized the potential in Lehtonen, who was the second pick in the 2002 Entry Draft.
"You can look back over the last 20 years and talk about some of those goalies, like the Haseks and the Belfours … look at how long it took them to establish themselves as the clear No. 1 guy," Waddell told NHL.com. "Usually, you never worried about goalies until they were 26-27 years old but now, with the new NHL, it's much different. You have to bring them along a lot quicker and I think Kari has gotten as much experience under his belt as any 25-year-old player can get. He's learned a lot -- he's learned a lot through his training and what it takes to be an NHL goaltender, what it takes to be an elite athlete. That all comes over time with a maturity level, knowing what to do and how to do it."
Leading up to the March 4 trade deadline, Waddell admits there were teams who expressed an interest in his pending restricted free agent, but that the organization never considered trading Lehtonen.
"We never even considered trading Kari, that's for sure," Waddell said. "I've been a Kari believer since he's been here. He's been through some injury issues and we've dealt with that in the past and we have a pretty good handle on it moving forward."
Lehtonen was glad he wasn't part of the whirlwind trading frenzy earlier this month.
"I had some talks with our GM and he was saying that he believed in me and we're going to do some great things here so that made me more relaxed," Lehtonen said. "Other people in the media had me being traded and this was a new thing for me but I understand it's part of the game. This is home for me and we've been going through some tough times lately. We did better a couple of years ago, but I think we're going in the right direction and I want to be part of that."
Lehtonen, whose ailing back forced him to miss 19 games from Nov. 6-Dec. 18, is currently 18-21-3 with a 3.02 GAA and .913 save percentage. For his career, Lehtonen sports a 2.86 GAA and .913 save percentage -- pretty impressive on a team that has failed to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs in four of his five seasons.
"He's capable of being one of the top goalies in the League and I think he's proven that over the last 20 games at a time when we've been looking for that consistency," Waddell said. "He's taken the ball and has run with it."
Still, is it realistic to think the Thrashers will retain three goalies at the start of training camp next season, including prospect Ondrej Pavelec
and veteran Johan Hedberg
"We're in a great position," Waddell said. "We have three goalies; two who could be a starter in Pavelec and Lehtonen, so that gives us many options whether we just keep all of them or if we determine that, at some point, one of them might be worth trading to try and help fill some holes in our hockey club.
"Right now, there's no plan to do anything," he continued. "My next goal is to get Kari signed to a long term contract and we'll go from there."
Lehtonen has also expressed his appreciation for Thrashers coach Anderson, who coached him in the American Hockey League with the Chicago Wolves in 2003-04 (20-14-2, 2.41 GAA, .926 save percentage) and 2004-05 (38-17-2, 2.27 GAA, .929 save percentage).
"I think he listens to players and he can really see what the guys need and feel and I think that's his best quality," Lehtonen said of Anderson. "It's harder when the coach keeps yelling at you and doesn't listen to you. I feel as though we're finally starting to learn our systems and that's been great for us recently."
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com.