General Manager Don Waddell feels the revamping of his team’s defense this summer just wouldn’t be complete without the assurance his record-breaking goalie, Kari Lehtonen
, was back in the mix for another season.
Waddell made certain of that Wednesday when he agreed to a one-year deal with the restricted free agent, who was the second pick in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft.
The 24-year-old Lehtonen, the Thrashers’ all-time leader among goalies in games played (158), wins (75), shutouts (11) and save percentage (.913), is thrilled to be returning to Atlanta.
"It was my goal all summer to get a deal done and it was great to finally reach an agreement, so this way everything is in order from the start of training camp,"Lehtonen told NHL.com. "I’m looking forward to playing for John Anderson
since he was my coach for two years in Chicago (in the American Hockey League). We had great success there and I’m very excited that he’s been given a chance to prove his ability on this level."
Lehtonen played for Chicago in 2003-04 (20-14-2, 2.41 goals-against average, .926 save percentage) and 2004-05 (38-17-2, 2.27 GAA, .929 save percentage), when the club reached the Calder Cup final.
Lehtonen’s signing comes on the heels of Waddell’s vision to retool a defense that yielded a League-high 3.24 goals per game last season. In June, Waddell took the first step in that process by using the third pick of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft on 6-foot-2, 197-pound Zach Bogosian
, who will challenge for a roster spot in training camp. He then signed two-way defenseman Ron Hainsey
to a five-year deal July 2. Hainsey had spent the last three seasons with the Columbus Blue Jackets
"Of course (finishing last in goals against) is not the place where you want to be when you’re a goalie and that’s something we must improve on,’’ Lehtonen said. ``I think we’ve added good players to help us improve and I’m optimistic we can turn things around defensively. I’m pretty sure those two guys (Bogosian and Hainsey) are going to help us a lot, and at the same time help me also. Our defense looks better now than it did last year, so that’s great news."
Lehtonen also is confident Tobias Enstrom, who led all Atlanta defensemen with 38 points as a rookie last season, will continue to improve.
"It was great to see what he accomplished last season,&" said Lehtonen. "Nobody basically knew him and what he was capable of doing and he played awesome. From Day 1 it was just amazing to see how he improved each game. He’s going to be a huge part of this organization for a long time and that’s great for us, especially since we found him in the later rounds in the draft (eighth round in 2003)."
Lehtonen completed his third full season in 2007-08 with a 17-22-5 record, four shutouts, a 2.90 GAA and a single-season franchise-record .916 save percentage. He also appeared in two games with Chicago after missing 16 games with a groin injury in December.
"That injury was at the beginning of last season, so I got over it and haven’t had a problem since," he said. "Hopefully it won’t come back and I’ll try to work hard now and get ready for (training) camp."
Lehtonen certainly would like a shot at redemption in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He lost his only two postseason appearances in 2006-07 while finishing with a 5.59 GAA and .849 save percentage in those games.
"I’m pretty sure those two guys (Bogosian and Hainsey) are going to help us a lot, and at the same time help me also. Our defense looks better now than it did last year, so that’s great news." - Kari Lehtonen
"Competing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs is what every player on every team is looking to do and that’s one big thing I want to get back to,’’ he said. ``I want to show everyone that I can do well, so that’s something on my mind, but that’s how all 29 other teams feel as well."
Lehtonen admits he no longer puts added pressure on himself as the highest-drafted European goalie and Finnish player in NHL history.
"Maybe I did before, but that’s something that doesn’t really matter to me anymore,’" Lehtonen said. "It really doesn’t matter where you’re drafted since you have no control over it. The bottom line is you have to do well at this level or you aren’t going to be part of an NHL team."
Prior to his North American career, Lehtonen played with Jokerit Helsinki in the Finish Elite League from 2000-03, posting a 39-19-8 record with nine shutouts and a 1.92 GAA. He was a two-time winner of the Urpo-Ylonen Trophy as the league’s top goaltender and was named the Most Valuable Player of the postseason while leading his team to the Finish Elite League Championship in 2001-02.
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com.