Ask Dallas Stars goaltender Kari Lehtonen about GM Jim’ Nill’s offseason moves and he echoes the sentiments of his teammates – he’s excited. And then his attention turns to one of those moves, the addition of goaltender Antti Niemi
“From my point of view, it’s a big change,” Lehtonen said.
That change came after a rough season for Dallas goaltending. A season that saw the team rank 26th in goals against (3.13) and 29th in save percentage (.895). Lehtonen struggled, and the backup position didn’t provide much relief. That led to the acquisition of Niemi, a pending unrestricted free agent, from San Jose back in June. The Stars then signed Niemi to a three-year deal, giving the Stars two established No. 1 goaltenders.
“We knew there were some games our backups weren’t good enough, and we’ve got to be better,” Nill said after the Niemi deal. “The game has almost become a two-goalie game now with the travel, the back-to-backs and the pressure of winning. We are looking forward to having a good one-two punch with him and Kari.”
Lehtonen said he is looking forward to working with Niemi, a fellow Finn he knows well.
“We were at the Olympics together, grew up a mile apart and we are the same age. We have been crossing paths here and there,” Lehtonen said. “He’s a really nice guy, and I am happy that he is going to be here. He is going to be pushing me, and I have to do well if I want to get ice time.”
How Lehtonen and Niemi will split that ice time is anybody’s guess right now. Both goaltenders have averaged about 60 games per season in recent years. With the NHL schedule still at 82 games, they both won’t play 60 games this upcoming season. Lehtonen said it will be a challenge, but thinks there can be benefits.
“I think it is about finding the groove and staying sharp without playing every night. It’s going to be a challenge, but I am excited to see because it can work really well,” he said. “We can both be fresh but still get enough ice time to still stay confident and keep our game going. We’ll have to wait and see.”
Lehtonen will not only be adjusting to a new goaltending partner, he’ll have a new goaltending coach as well. The Stars hired Jeff Reese, who had been in Philadelphia, to take over for Mike Valley, who has been moved into the position of director of goalie development for the Stars.
“[Reese] is a nice guy and he’s been around for a while. I liked what he was able to do with [Steve] Mason in Philly, turning his game around,” Lehtonen said. “We’ve been watching video, going through things he sees that are really good in my game that I should do more often, and there’s some stuff I should stay away from. It’s been back and forth, throwing out ideas, and it’s been good.”
A new perspective and a new voice could pay dividends.
“I hope so. It was hard when I got the phone call from Mike that he was not going to be here anymore,” Lehtonen said. “But when you look on the other hand, it’s been six years with the same guy, and that’s also a long time. Maybe it’s good to get a set of new eyes, new thoughts about my game. And I’ll still talk to Mike. We are good friends. I’ll have that forever, and that’s pretty cool.”
Lehtonen’s struggles last season are well documented. While he tied his career high in wins in posting a 34-17-10 record, his 2.94 goals-against average and .903 save percentage were near career lows. Among the 45 goaltenders who played enough to qualify to be among the league leaders, Lehtonen ranked 36th in goals-against average and 41st in save percentage.
“Last year, I wasn’t able to find the sweet spot,” Lehtonen said. “I was too aggressive for one week and the next week I was totally opposite, I was way too passive. I found my game for a little time and then I kind of lost it again. I am trying to find more simple rules of how I want to do things consistently, and I think that is going to make me more consistent on the ice.”
Lehtonen said it has been a long summer, one he spent mostly in Dallas. He’s among the latest players to join the informal skates in Frisco, and he is looking forward to training camp and the new season, and how the new additions can help push the Stars forward.
“It’s going to be exciting. From my point of view, it’s a big change to have Antti here. I am excited to see what we can do together,” Lehtonen said. “We got some firepower up front [with Patrick Sharp] and [Johnny] Oduya on defense. I am excited to see where we can take this team.”
This story was not subject to the 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.