Training camp is a little more than three weeks away, but there are signs of activity at the Dallas Stars training facility in Frisco. A few players have started to skate on some mornings. Among them is goaltender Kari Lehtonen.
It’s been a quiet summer for Lehtonen, who spent his time just being a dad and, of course, preparing for the 2013-14 season.
“It was good, resting and working out,” said Lehtonen. “I was here and in Atlanta a little bit, no trips. My son is eleven-months-old, so it was playing with him and doing that sort of thing. We didn’t go to Finland because I don’t think we could have handled him in a plane for 20 hours.”
While Lehtonen’s summer was relatively quiet, the Stars were busy. There was a lot of change, and it was significant. Lehtonen was still around when Jim Nill took over as general manager, but since then Lindy Ruff has come in as head coach and the Stars went out and added forwards Tyler Seguin, Rich Peverley and Shawn Horcoff and defensemen Sergei Gonchar through trades, and drafted forward Valeri Nichushkin.
“It’s going to be exciting. Every year there are some changes and this time there were many, many changes,” Lehtonen said. “It’s always the same, it’s tough to see your friends go somewhere else, but we’ve got some new guys coming here and we are getting some great players. It’s going to be exciting to see how we are going to become a team, start playing and winning together. I’m excited. I haven’t seen the coach, but I’ve talked to him a couple of times. He seems like a nice guy and from what I’ve heard he’s a good coach. That’s always a plus. The GM seems really knowledgeable and he has a plan for us. It’s good.”
There is also a new goaltending partner in Dan Ellis, signed as a free agent over the summer. Ellis, who was originally drafted by the Stars in 2000, will bring some veteran presence to the backup position.
“I don’t know too much (about him), but I’ve seen him play,” said Lehtonen. “I talked to the equipment guys – they were here when he was in the system and he was up a little bit too – and they said he’s a great guy. I am excited that he is coming here and he’s going to make the goaltending even stronger. Hopefully, we can be really good together.”
There have been more than management and player personnel changes for the Stars. There’s a new look as well, with new uniforms and a new logo for the 2013-14 season. Lehtonen admitted he wasn’t completely on board with the change at first, but he’s been swayed by time.
“I am starting to like them. I felt like maybe we didn’t need to change the logo, maybe bring back the old star and all that stuff. Now, I’ve lived with it for a little while and I really like it,” he said. “There are experts who are deciding these things and they got it right. The only hard thing is I need to change my pants now. I usually wear the same pants for five or six years, so it’s hard for me to put on the new ones. Now I have to, I have no choice. That’s the only thing I wasn’t happy with.”
This year will bring in a new contract for Lehtonen, a five-year, $29.5 million extension that he signed just prior to the start of last season’s lockout. This will be Lehtonen’s fourth full season with the Stars. He’s still looking for his first trip to the postseason with Dallas. The Stars haven’t made the playoffs since 2008. There’s a lot of motivation to end the drought, and to end the questions about it.
“Yep. It’s something we always talk about before the season starts and during the season,” Lehtonen said. “We’ll just have to go out there and execute and play well.”
Motivation will come on a personal level for Lehtonen as well. 2014 is an Olympic year and Lehtonen has his sights on one of the three goaltending spots on Finland’s roster. Finland announced its candidates for the Olympics earlier this summer, and Lehtonen is one of eight goaltenders under consideration. There is some stiff competition with Boston’s Tuukka Rask, San Jose’s Antti Niemi, Nashville’s Pekka Rinne and Minnesota’s Niklas Backstrom among those in contention.
“That’s something I really want to do. It’s a goal for me, but that means I have to play really well right off the bat. I believe I can do that,” Lehtonen said. “There’s tough competition. We have five, six, seven goalies fighting for those three spots. It’s a tight race and I think it is something that gives an extra little spark for me personally.
“I am getting older and I haven’t played in those. A couple times I was hurt, but I’ve always thought I won’t have many more of those to come. Here’s another chance. I hope I can be healthy. The competition is a little tougher than a few years ago. It’s exciting.”
With a shot at playing in Olympics and all the changes surrounding the Stars, there’s plenty to be excited about.
“I can’t wait to get to camp,” Lehtonen said, “and get this started.”