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Stars' Kari Lehtonen 'comfortable' with new role heading into season

Despite changes in net, the veteran goaltender is still expected to see plenty of playing time

by Mark Stepneski @StarsInsideEdge / Inside Edge

Stars goaltender Kari Lehtonen got off to a rocky start this preseason, allowing three goals on the first three shots he faced. But he settled in, found his groove and looked comfortable in goal the rest of the way. 

And that's how he'll enter this season - comfortable.

He's comfortable despite the Stars making a big change in goal by acquiring the rights to Ben Bishop, and signing him to a six-year, $29.5 million contract to establish him as the team's new No. 1 goaltender.

Lehtonen, who took over the No. 1 job for the Stars in 2010 and then split the duties with Antti Niemi the past two seasons, is now in a backup role. But Lehtonen is expected to get ample playing time, and he said sharing the net with Niemi and seeing his ice time drop from previous seasons, has helped prepare him for whatever is ahead in 2017-18.

"It's not a huge jump for me if I don't play for a couple of weeks and then I need to get things going again for a little stretch," Lehtonen said. "That's why I am more comfortable right now. I know how to handle that mentally."

Video: DAL@TBL: Lehtonen makes a pair of big saves early

Lehtonen led the NHL in games played (65) and minutes (3804) in 2013-14. He played 43 games in 2015-16, the first season splitting the net with Niemi, and then was up to 59 games last season. Lehtonen is slated to play less with Bishop now in the mix, but Stars coach Ken Hitchcock said the team will need both goaltenders.

"I just know it's more difficult being a three-quarter playing goalie in the West than it is in the East," Hitchcock said. 

In other words, 60 games is a lot for one goaltender, as Hitchcock sees it.

"We want to look at the travel. We play a lot of three in four nights, so we are going to need both guys," Hitchcock said. "I think for a guy to play a lot, 50 is a lot in the West right now. It's not as difficult in the East, but it is a lot in the West. I need them both playing well. You can't hold a guy out for a long, extended period of time and expect him to be good. Whatever we are doing, we've got to find a rhythm with both guys, not just with one guy."

So, Lehtonen will get his playing time. It probably will go down from past seasons, but he helped his cause in the preseason. There was that rough start, but he followed it up with some sharp work including 53 saves on 54 shots in complete-game victories over St. Louis and Minnesota.

"With Lehtonen's situation, if he plays like he did in the [St. Louis] game, which was really sound and aggressive, he is going to get a lot of games," Hitchcock said after Lehtonen stopped 21 shots in a shutout of the Blues. "I don't know the number, and I don't even want to plan that way."

Video: COL@DAL: Lehtonen forces Rantanen wide for SO win

Lehtonen followed up the St. Louis game with a 32-save effort in a 4-1 win over the Wild in the Stars' next to last preseason game.

"You're trying to build a little base, and a couple of good games certainly help," Lehtonen said. "I can go back to those when the next time comes that I am going to play. It's been going good after a little bit of a rusty start there in that first game."

Lehtonen ranks third all-time in games played for the Stars (408), second in wins (201) and first in save percentage (.912). Last season was a rough one. He posted a 22-25-7 record with a 2.85 goals against average and .902 save percentage -- numbers that were among the worst in his career. But Lehtonen has a good chance to bounce back playing behind a team that should be better defensively under Hitchcock. 

And if the playing time goes down, that's okay. Lehtonen said he has been down that road and is ready. 

"It doesn't change for me that much," Lehtonen said. "I just have to stay prepared. It's going to be a lot of practice time, and I just have to keep working to get better to help the team. I am just ready to get going."

This story was not subject to approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. Mark Stepneski is an independent writer whose posts on DallasStars.com reflect his own opinions and do not represent official statements from the Dallas Stars. You can follow Mark on Twitter @StarsInsideEdge.

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