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Lehtinen already focused on 2009-10

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

Following what was undoubtedly one of the most difficult seasons of his career, there was no hesitation when Dallas Stars right winger Jere Lehtinen was asked if he wished to return next year for a 14th NHL season, all of which has been spent right here in the Metroplex.

Lehtinen, who will be 36 when the 2009-10 season begins, battled through an injury-filled campaign as he completed the three-year contract he signed prior to the 2006-07 season and is therefore scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1.

“Of course, I want to come back,” said Lehtinen, who will be free to field offers and sign elsewhere, without any compensation for Dallas. “Especially being here so long and after a season like this, you want to get back and bring the team back on top again. I think it’s been so great here and we have had a chance every year to go far and this year, of course, it was a disappointing season overall. I want to come back and be a part of a good team again.”

It was a tough year for both the player and the team, as the Stars failed to qualify for the playoffs this year for just the third time since moving to Dallas from Minnesota in 1993 and Lehtinen missed 34 games with injuries.

“It’s tough to say, it wasn’t just one thing, it was a lot of things,” said Lehtinen regarding what went wrong this season. “We didn’t start the season too good and coming from behind, and of course, it’s not an excuse, but injuries, we were missing players most of the season and of course, that’s not going to help. I think, just overall, it was a struggling season. Even though we got our game back pretty good for a while and played okay, but then again, more injuries and then we started to lose and it kind of went the wrong way. That’s, I think, what got us this season.”

While Lehtinen expressed a desire to return next year, it appears that Stars management would also like him back, so it should just be a matter of ironing out a new contract.

“We haven’t really had serious talks,” Lehtinen said last week as players dispersed for the off-season. “We’ll see how it works out, but I hope everything’s going to work out and I’ll be back.”

“To me, Jere Lehtinen is the consummate professional,” said Brett Hull, Lehtinen's former linemate and now the Stars' co-General Manager. “He’s nothing but class. He’s won three Selkes, he’s a guy that keeps himself in the utmost top physical condition and he’s got all the ability in the world to continue to play as well. We’d love to have Jere back, but there’s issues, there’s financial terms out there that we can go to and that he wants, so I’m sure it will all get worked out, because he’s also ingrained in this organization.”

Lehtinen, who made $4 million in each of the last two years of his deal, would likely have to accept a bit of a pay cut in order for the Stars to be able to fit him into their budget for next season, when the salary cap is expected to be around $56 million, but he doesn’t see money as a potential stumbling block.

“I haven’t thought about it that far, but for me, that’s never been the issue,” Lehtinen said, “because I want to be part of this team and be on a top team again and that’s my main thing. And we have it here. We have good players, we have an organization that’s good, so I don’t think that’s going to be an issue.”

Lehtinen, the fourth-round selection (88th overall) of the Minnesota North Stars way back in the 1992 NHL Entry Draft, is one of the few links left to the club’s only Stanley Cup championship in 1999, a playoff year in which he scored 10 goals in 23 games. Over the course of his career, Lehtinen has compiled 27 goals and 49 points in 108 post-season games, including four goals and eight points in 14 games last spring before another injury forced him out of the Western Conference Finals in Game 2.

His 239 career goals rank seventh on the club’s all-time list and his seven 20-goal seasons are the third-most in franchise history, while his total of 37 game-winning goals sits third on that list. He’s also ninth in points (497), fifth in games played (817), and seventh in power play goals (76).

But of course, as one of the NHL’s premier two-way players for over a decade who has won three Selke Trophies as the league’s top defensive forward, Lehtinen’s contributions extend far beyond the scoresheet, because he focuses on the details of the game.

“He’s one of those guys that you watch in a game right now, all the situations in a game that he touches and they’re all critical situations,” Stars coach Dave Tippett said. “You look at the penalty kill, you look at the power play stuff, end of periods, end of games, where he has - it might not be a scoring chance, it might be just him making sure the game doesn’t go against us. He’s just such an intelligent player, his work ethic is second to none and he gets the job done. He’s as solid a player as there is right now.” 

“I didn’t realize until I got here last year how great a hockey player he is, very underrated and very quiet,” noted center Brad Richards, acquired from Tampa in February 2008. “His work ethic is unbelievable and how he does so many little things in the game that go unnoticed unless you’re playing with him or on the same team. He’s a great player. We’re very fortunate - we didn’t have him at all early this year and you forget how valuable and how much you missed him until he got back. He’s a great player, a great person, a great example for everybody, how he works.”

For Lehtinen, this was the second straight year he was hindered by injuries, missing 33 games in 2007-08 with a sports hernia. This year started off on the wrong foot for him, too, as Lehtinen was hurt from the start of training camp and ended up sitting out 28 of the first 31 games with two separate ailments.

Then, when he did get back in the lineup, the 6-foot, 194-pound Finn endured an up-and-down season marked by uncharacteristic inconsistency. 

When Lehtinen first returned to the lineup in mid-December, he helped fuel the club’s turnaround after a slow start. Joining the club’s top offensive line alongside center Mike Ribeiro and with Steve Ott patrolling the left wing, Lehtinen enjoyed outstanding success. 

Following a gradual adjustment period in which he notched four assists in his first nine games back, Lehtinen was scorching hot in January, posting five goals and 15 points over a 12-game stretch that included a career-high eight-game scoring streak.

He then cooled off a bit, collecting just two goals and an assist in his next 11 contests before suffering an upper body injury and spending six games on the sidelines. When he returned again on March 17, Lehtinen never really seemed to find his groove again, struggling down the stretch with just one assist over the season’s final 13 games, as the club fell out of the playoff chase by going 3-7-3. He did match his career-high with eight shots on goal in the season finale at Anaheim on April 10, completing the year with eight goals and 24 points in 48 games while averaging 19:00 of ice time per night. 

“When he can contribute where it makes a lot of difference on the scoreboard, I think that’s where he gets frustrated when he’s not doing it,” Tippett said. “From our end, he’s been playing very well, he just hasn’t capitalized on chances.”

Despite ending the year on somewhat of a down note, all parties are eager to continue the long association between Jere Lehtinen and the Dallas Stars. Demonstrating just how serious he is about coming back strong next season, Lehtinen even decided to pass on an invitation to join Team Finland in the upcoming World Championships in Switzerland, a tournament several of his teammates, as well as Tippett, will be participating in, citing the need to refocus on preparing for next season.

“I’m not going, I just need a break,” said Lehtinen, who has represented his home country in four past Olympics, winning a bronze medal in 1998 and a silver in 2006. “With so many injuries, mentally and physically I just need a break. I want to be ready when I come back next year, that’s my main thing. That’s the best thing to do right now is get some rest and start working out and have a good summer working out-wise.” 

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