For Kari Lehtonen
, life does begin at 26.
Life didn't start for the big Finnish goaltender in 2002, when the Atlanta Thrashers
made him the second pick of the draft. It didn't even begin in 2006-07, when he posted a 34-24-9 record for the Thrashers as they made it to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the only time in franchise history. It took a trade to Dallas last season to add new meaning to his life.
"My life had kind of been turned around for me," Lehtonen said. "I had played all my life for Atlanta. I was getting calls from my agent. He was hearing rumors of my being traded. So I wasn't shocked, but still, it was hard to leave the only team I ever played for.
"It took me a couple months. But I adjusted. It was a change that I didn't know I needed. It may have seemed unthinkable at the time."
On Feb. 9, Lehtonen was traded to the Stars for defenseman Ivan Vishnevskiy
and a 2010 fourth-round pick. The trade was a long-shot for the Stars because of Lehtonen's history of back problems. Prior to the trade, he hadn't played in the NHL since April 2009, missing most of last season recovering from September back surgery. His only game action prior to arriving in Dallas was four games with the AHL Chicago Wolves.
But Lehtonen finished last season with a 6-4-0 record, which provided a glimpse into what's become a wonderful start to the 2010-11 season. Through Wednesday's games, he was tied for the League lead with four wins, and he had a 2.97 goals-against average and .921 save percentage as the Stars jumped to the top of the Pacific Division.
"In my season-ending meeting with the Stars I said I finally felt healthy, no pain in my back," Lehtonen said. "But I asked the training staff if they could find me a trainer in Atlanta. I'm 26 and I've had far too many injuries."
The Stars lined him up with a trainer in Atlanta, and even came to town to check on his progress. During the offseason, they signed him to a three-year, $10.65 million contract extension.
"The last two years I've battling with this back issue and hopefully now it's behind me," Lehtonen said. "It's something that I can't worry too much, because if I start thinking about if something is going to happen, I'm not focusing on the right things like stopping the puck."
Lehtonen said pinched nerves and a herniated disk caused numbness down his left leg last season. The surgery in September involved taking out a bone that was rubbing against a nerve.
The trainers devised a routine to get his hockey strength back as well as improve his overall fitness.
GM Joe Nieuwendyk
looked at other goalies, but never saw Lehtonen as a gamble.
"It's no secret we were looking at other goaltenders," Nieuwendyk said. "Only Kari fit the bill for what we were looking for. A big goaltender with impressive quickness, a mind for the game -- so many talents. When I played against him … he was an intimidating force in the net. There were nights when we went into Atlanta where you felt like you had to be pretty precise in order to beat the guy."
Everyone has been impressed with Lehtonen, especially goaltender coach Mike Valley
"There is never too much time for Kari," Valley said. "He never gets enough -- of talking about the games, time to study styles and tendencies of opposing players."
"He was drafted second overall for a reason -- he's an elite goaltender when healthy," Nieuwendyk said. "Now that he's on the right path, we're going to get a guy that's entering the prime of his career as far as goaltenders. I think it's a good risk for us."
"I have a lot to prove for myself. I have a clean sheet, a chance to get back to be a great goalie in NHL." -- Kari Lehtonen
There's an ease in the way Lehtonen plays. There is no hiding his size -- 6-foot-4, 215 pounds. He can be aggressive and challenge shooters at times, but he also does a good job of simply sliding back and forth in the crease and letting the puck hit him.
"You look at Atlanta, they needed Kari or somebody else to be that stopper in goal," said Keith Tkachuk
, who spent part of the 2006-07 season with Lehtonen in Atlanta. "It happened that Lehtonen was the guy. The guy they drafted. The guy they counted on.
"He was a veteran, the Dominik Hasek
or Ed Belfour
. They didn't make it until they were 26, 27 and 28."
Now Lehtonen is 26 years old and he's beginning a new life with the Stars.
He has a challenge on his mind -- not just to fill the Stars' net the way a normal goaltender does. No, he wants to fulfill the expectations that come with being the No. 2 pick in a draft.
"I have a lot to prove for myself," Lehtonen said. "I have a clean sheet, a chance to get back to be a great goalie in NHL."
A new life, and a new chance for Lehtonen to succeed.