Way back in training camp, one of the biggest questions surrounding the Dallas Stars concerned their goaltending: Would Kari Lehtonen
be able to remain healthy for a full year and if so, can he regain the immense promise that made him the second overall draft choice in 2002?
Despite a disappointing finish to the season that saw the Stars lose their final game in Minnesota April 10 and miss the playoffs, consider the answers to those questions as ‘yes’ and ‘absolutely.’
Not only did Lehtonen post career-highs in games played (69), minutes played (4,119), and match his personal best with 34 victories, he was a rock in goal, the foundation of the entire club’s style of play and he thrived with the responsibility.
“That was a good thing, that was a big goal for me to be able to play a lot and it was good to see it happen,” said Lehtonen, who surpassed 50 games played for just the second time in his seven-year NHL career. “I just have to go forward and try to play a lot next year too and try to play better, just take steps forward.”
After playing just 12 games in 2009-10 due to multiple back surgeries, Lehtonen delivered many outstanding performances this year, registering a career-best 2.55 goals-against average, a strong .914 save percentage and three shutouts. He also set a franchise record and led the NHL with six assists, so while he still won’t be confused with former Star Marty Turco regarding his puck-handling skills, it’s clear Lehtonen has improved significantly in that area.
After battling injuries for most of his career since his arrival in North America, the 27-year-old native of Helsinki, Finland finally solidified his health this season. That allowed him to concentrate much more on his play and less on how he was feeling, and the results were obvious.
“The last couple of years before this season, that was the only thing I was thinking about,” acknowledged Lehtonen, who led Atlanta to the franchise’s only playoff appearance in 2007, the one season he remained healthy the whole year. “I was hurting and I couldn’t do all the things on the ice that I wanted and that makes it a lot harder to stop the pucks because you have so many other things to worry about. It’s pretty hard to play this game and be a goalie. It’s something that I try not to think about too much, just try to focus on stopping the pucks and not worry if I’m going to get hurt.”
Now the task facing Lehtonen is to continue his evolution as a consistent top-notch netminder and hopefully ascend into the NHL’s group of elite goalies.
“I’m coming to that age when most of the goalies are at their best and hopefully I can do that too, just elevate my game and take the next step to be considered one of the top guys, said Lehtonen, who started the Stars’ final 23 games of the season. “I think that’s my next goal and if I’m able to do that, that will help us a lot and I’m sure we’d still be playing.”
“Let’s not forget that Kari Lehtonen
, although he didn’t play much the last two years prior to this year, gave us 70 hard games this year,” noted Dallas General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk, who acquired Lehtonen from Atlanta Feb. 9, 2010. “I think the challenge for him now going forward is, we know he’s durable, we know he’s a good goaltender - he personally will have to take the steps now to become one of the top goaltenders and maybe even THE top goaltender in the league. And he has the mentality to do that.”
And while Lehtonen was generally happy with his performance this season, he certainly feels confident he will continue to improve, which is a good sign.
“There’s still ways you’d like to play better,” admitted Lehtonen, who helped Jokerit Helsinki win the Finnish Elite League championship in 2002 and was named MVP of the playoffs, as an 18-year-old. “I was thinking about it, if you showed me the stat sheet before the season started and said, ‘This is what you’re going to get,’ I’m sure I would have been happy to take that. But still, there’s room for improvement.”
To accomplish that goal, Lehtonen plans on replicating his off-season training program that seemed to help him so much last summer.
“It seemed to work, what I did, so I’m going to hook up with my guy back in Atlanta again and make a little plan, but it’s probably going to be a little similar,” said Lehtonen, who’s listed as 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds. “I’m excited because now I’m starting working out and I’m 20 pounds lighter than when I started last year. I was almost 230 when I played last year and now I’m 210 and that’s a big difference. Hopefully, I can look like some sort of bodybuilder when I come back.”
First, though, Lehtonen needs to cleanse from his palette the sour taste of the Stars’ season-ending loss in Minnesota, when they had an opportunity to seize the eighth and final playoff spot with a victory.
“It was tough, I still don’t think I realize that the season’s really over,” said Lehtonen two days after the Stars’ 5-3 loss April 10. “I’m sure it’ll take a little bit of time. It was in our hands and we just couldn’t win when it counted the most.”
With another year from a healthy and determined Lehtonen, it’s a good bet that won’t be the case again in 2011-12.