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Lehtonen era officially under way in Dallas

by Mike G. Morreale
For the first time in seven seasons, the Dallas Stars will unveil a new starter between the pipes this fall.

That became reality on Monday when Stars' fans officially learned that three-time NHL All-Star goalie Marty Turco, who spent his first 10 seasons in the League with Dallas, signed a one-year deal with the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.

Really, though, the future doesn't look all that bad for the Stars with goalie Kari Lehtonen as the apparent heir to Turco in 2010-11.

Additionally, Andrew Raycroft is expected to battle Brent Krahn for the backup role. And, looking even further on down the road, there's prospect Jack Campbell, the club's 2010 first-round draft choice (No. 11) in June, waiting in the wings.

Lehtonen, acquired in a trade with Atlanta on Feb. 9 in exchange for defenseman Ivan Vishnevskiy and a 2010 fourth-round draft choice (forward Ivan Telegin), inked a three-year deal worth $10.65 million on May 11. The No. 2 pick in the 2002 draft pick has struggled with injuries throughout his career but is reportedly working hard this offseason in anticipation of a fresh start in the Lone Star State.

"I have a lot to prove for myself and I want to get back to be a great goalie in this League," Lehtonen told John Tranchina of the Stars' website. "If I'm able to do that, I'm sure I'll help this club a lot."

Dallas ranked 23rd in the League last season with a collective 2.98 goals-against average, but Turco was a respectable 22-20-11 with a 2.72 GAA and .913 save percentage. Now the job is Lehtonen's.

The 26-year-old Finnish goalie missed the first four-plus months of the 2009-10 season while recuperating from multiple back surgeries. He closed on a strong note, however, going 6-3-0 with a 2.44 goals-against average and .926 save percentage. In 12 appearances for Dallas following his trade from Atlanta, Lehtonen went 6-4-0 with a 2.81 GAA and .911 save percentage.

Don Waddell, who was Atlanta's general manager at the time and drafted Lehtonen, has always realized the goalie's potential.

"You can look back over the last 20 years and talk about some of those goalies, like the (Dominik) Haseks and the (Ed) Belfours … look at how long it took them to establish themselves as the clear No. 1 guy," Waddell told last year. "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."

Prior to the back ailments that hampered his 2009-10 season, Lehtonen considered himself older and wiser. He was discovering his potential.

"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."

When healthy, Lehtonen has proven to be a solid goalie. During the 2006-07 season, he played in a career-high 68 games and finished 34-24-9 with a 2.79 GAA, .912 save percentage and four shutouts. It was also the first and only season the Thrashers won the Southeast Division title and qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

"Because of his size, skill and potential to once again be a top-tier goaltender in this League, we're excited to acquire Kari," Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk after when making the deal in February. "His play during the last month of the (2009-10) season reaffirmed our belief that he can be our starter for next year and seasons to come."

For his career, Lehtonen has appeared in 216 games and owns a 100-87-17 record with a 2.87 GAA, .912 save percentage and 14 shutouts.

Nieuwendyk added an insurance policy on July 1 when he signed Raycroft, the 2004 Calder Trophy winner, to a two-year deal. The 30-year-old played 21 games for Vancouver in 2009-10, posting a 9-5-1 record with a 2.42 GAA, .911 save percentage and one shutout. He started for Toronto in 2006-07, playing in 72 games (37-25-9) and finishing with a 2.99 GAA and a .894 save percentage.

The 6-foot, 173-pound goaltender has played in 251 career NHL games and has produced a 103-101-27 record with seven shutouts, a 2.87 GAA and .900 save percentage. Raycroft was drafted in the fifth round (No. 135) by Boston in the 1998 Entry Draft and won the Calder with the Bruins six years later.

Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale

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