Unsung Lehtinen prepared for another great year
Quick quiz: who led the Dallas Stars in goals last season? No, not Mike Modano or the departed Jason Arnott, although those are good guesses. If you answered Jere Lehtinen, then you deserve a green and gold star. As ridiculous as it sounds, despite being his team's leading goal-scorer (with a career-high 33) and the runner-up for a major NHL award, Lehtinen continues to fly under the radar and rarely seems to be mentioned in conversations about the Stars' top players.
But GM Doug Armstrong knows what he has in Lehtinen and stepped up with a new contract extension for the winger on Saturday that will keep him under contract through the 2008-09 season.
Part of the reason Lehtinen does not get all the accolades he deserves is because of his quiet demeanor and partially because his skills on the ice tend to be much more subtle than his flashy linemate, Mike Modano.
The fact that he is a three-time winner (and six-time finalist) of the Selke Trophy as the NHL's best defensive forward (which went to Carolina's Rod Brind'Amour over Lehtinen last year) proves that people have noticed his consistent excellence, and his two 30-goal seasons speak to his offensive prowess. In addition to his 33 goals, which included a team-high six game-winners, Lehtinen also tied his career-best of 52 points last season.
Lehtinen has also been a mainstay on Finland's national team, representing his country in four Olympics (1994, 1998, 2002, and 2006), bringing home a silver and two bronze medals for his efforts, as well as in the 1996 and 2004 World Cup tournaments.
With all these positive attributes on his resume, it is amazing to think he could still be considered underrated. But Lehtinen himself, in his typical self-effacing manner, continues to downplay his personal statistics and stresses that only team success means anything to him. "No, you don't ever before season," he responded, when asked if he starts a season aiming for a certain number of goals that year. "Of course, you try to have your best season every season, try to become a better player. But scoring-wise, goals, what's coming is what's coming. The main thing is if the team's doing good, then you're doing good also. If the team's playing good and winning games, I'll be glad whatever I get. I don't really (care about) numbers, if the team's on top, that's good enough for me."
The consummate team player, Lehtinen's greatness extends far beyond mere stats. Delve a little deeper, and you'll find that he is as dedicated and as hard a worker as you're likely to come across in the NHL and you'll discover he is as revered and respected by his peers as any player in the world.
Consider the glowing praise he receives from his teammates.
"He's a huge part of the team," forward Stu Barnes said. "I know he doesn't get a lot of attention. Obviously, we've got a lot of guys that get a lot of talk about how good they are and what they can do, but he's kind of one of those unsung heroes. He's kind of behind the scenes but he goes out and plays great every night and he's a huge factor in our winning a lot of hockey games."
"You can expect more of the same hard work, leadership in a quiet way," added defenseman Philippe Boucher. "You can expect consistency, which is the best thing you can say about anybody. You know what he's going to do. He's the backbone of our team."
The consistency that Lehtinen has fashioned throughout his career is truly impressive. Aside from his injury-plagued off-year in 2003-04, and 1999-2000 when he only played 17 games due to ankle problems, Lehtinen has scored at least 20 goals and 42 points every year since 1996-97, his second in the NHL. "You're going to get 100 per cent effort, a very smart hockey player, a very skilled hockey player, and it's night after night after night," Barnes said of Lehtinen's output. "It's not one game on, two off, it's night after night, and that's a huge asset."
As he returns for his 11th NHL season, the 33-year-old Lehtinen is once again in premium physical condition. For a player that finished third among forwards on the club in average ice time last season (18:42 a game), the 6-foot, 200-pounder continually works out to maintain his outstanding fitness level.
"It's a lot of just basic conditioning, a lot of running," Lehtinen said of his off-season workout program. "I play tennis during the summer, and do some extra weight training. During the season, it's pretty tough to do weights. During the summer, I do a lot of weights. But overall, you want to try to regroup and relax, but at the same time, you work hard."
Don't think all the effort Lehtinen puts forth goes unnoticed in the locker room.
"I think guys look up to him more for his work ethic and his determination," Barnes said. "He's not a very vocal guy, he's a quiet guy, but he's certainly a character guy that brings a lot to the table every day. He works tremendously hard in practice and off the ice in the gym, and that relates onto the ice and guys really look towards that."
"I think it's great for the young guys to see somebody like him," Boucher said, "with all the success he's had - a Cup, all the trophies - and he's in the gym every day working hard, and he's been here for a long time getting ready for the season. I think, preparation-wise, nobody prepares like him and he's a great example for everyone." With training camp beginning today, Lehtinen says he has moved past the disappointment of last spring's first round playoff defeat to Colorado and just wants to focus on the upcoming season.
"After last season, you were thinking a lot about what went wrong," said Lehtinen, who, of course, tied for the team lead with three playoff goals. "You can't say there was just one thing, or even just a couple of things. I think a lot of small things went the wrong way and we lost that first round of playoffs. But at the same time, you want to forget it and move forward and make sure this season, you're ready to play again. You can't think too much, but just overall, feel ready when the puck drops. You can find small things and learn from them, but at the same time, you have many new things going on."
Lehtinen has several new teammates, guys who will likely soon be talking about how they didn't realize just how special a player he was. Lehtinen expressed excitement about the club's off-season additions, including center Eric Lindros, center Jeff Halpern, winger Matthew Barnaby, forward Patrik Stefan, and defensemen Darryl Sydor and Jaroslav Modry.
"I think we have some team, a lot of good guys here in different roles, and I think that's going to help our team game a lot," Lehtinen said. "I think we have a lot of depth this year on the (forward) lines. It's a good mix of skill and scoring power but at the same time, a lot of hard workers and guys who can hit and play hard. It's a good mix.
"Overall, it looks good and I'm looking forward to it."