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Lehtinen rebounding with career year, perhaps another Selke

by Staff Writer / Dallas Stars

April 5, 2006

By John Tranchina

It isn't any wonder that when the Dallas Stars' two most important players, captain Mike Modano and Jere Lehtinen, had sub-par years in 2003-04, so did the team. And it's also not a coincidence that this season, with the Stars humming along in second place in the Western Conference, Modano and Lehtinen are both having fantastic seasons.

In fact, it's Lehtinen that even Modano points to as the catalyst for the entire club's success this year.

"He's consistent as ever, back to the way he's played," Modano said of his longtime linemate. "As a team, we're graded on how we play, and he's usually a guy that we go off of, for sure."

Lehtinen, a three-time winner of the Selke Trophy as the NHL's top defensive forward, has continued to play his usual outstanding defensive game, while also having a career year offensively.

"He's had an excellent year," Stars coach Dave Tippett said. "Timely goals, he plays against top players every night. The ultimate work-ethic guy, and a quiet team leader."

His power play goal in the first period Monday night against San Jose was his career-high 32nd goal of the season, surpassing his previous best of 31 from the 2002-03 season, and leading the team. It was also his 51st point of the year, just one shy of his personal high set in 1998-99, the Stars' Stanley Cup season. Of course, that's not counting the three goals and eight points he had in the Olympics in February while helping Finland win the silver medal.

In addition to his offense, Lehtinen is a crucial member of the Stars' penalty killing unit, currently ranked 7th in the NHL with 84.1 % efficiency. He helps shut down opposing teams' top lines and his defensive zone coverage is exceptional.

That is why, in each of those other seasons noted above, as well as in 1997-98, Lehtinen won the Selke, and certainly must be considered a leading candidate again this year. If he does win it, he will tie former Stars Coach and General Manager Bob Gainey for the most Selke awards in NHL history.

"I think this year he has been great," said fellow Finn, rookie Jussi Jokinen, who joins Lehtinen and Modano on the top line. "When you see how he's played the whole season, in the Olympics and straight through the Olympics, I think he should be best defensive forward in this league. He should win the Selke Trophy this year."

That's one vote, and there are many more. Ask any player on the Stars about Lehtinen and they all glow with admiration and respect as they recount how much he means to the team.

"He's been unbelievable," Stars winger Bill Guerin said. "I don't think there's a better two-way forward in the game, to be honest with you. A lot of guys have 30 goals, but they don't do it playing the type of defense that he does. I mean, this guy, the way he gets to loose pucks, the way he blocks shots, the way he does all the little things right and then puts 50-some-odd points on top of it, is really incredible."

"He's Mister Consistency," defenseman Philippe Boucher said. "You know what you're going to get from Jere. He works hard every day, even though it's been such a long year for those guys with the Olympics. He's been just as consistent coming back, and I think that's pretty impressive. On top of being probably one of the best defensive forwards in the league, he puts up big numbers. He has in the past, and he's been our leading goal scorer most of the year. You can't say enough about his play."

"Coming off a disappointing year, I think, and he's done everything he's been asked and more," noted winger Brenden Morrow. "He's scoring big goals. I think he's leading the team in game-winners [he is, with six]. He's doing it on the power play, he's still killing penalties, and kind of the Selke-type player that he's been in the past. He's been all that and more for us this year."

In 2003-04, Lehtinen played 58 games while battling a lingering back injury, and scored just 13 goals and 26 points. And in five playoff games (a quick exit at the hands of the Colorado Avalanche in the first round), he had no points.

Modano struggled that year, too, and it's no surprise that both had their worst NHL seasons simultaneously, and have rebounded with one of their best. Over the years, they have developed an intuitive feel for each other that goes beyond mere chemistry to what can only be defined as synergy. They feed off each other, and this year, their concurrent resurgence has been a contributing factor to the Stars' excellent showing.

"We both wanted to come back and really have rebound years and get back to the level we're used to playing at," Modano said. "It was good that maybe we both went through it together, because we've pushed each other to get back to that level again."

When asked why Lehtinen is playing so much better this season, Tippett identified the reason immediately.

"I think two years ago, he wasn't healthy," Tippett said. "His back was a problem most of the year and he never felt comfortable. I know from going through some back problems, that can really set you off, and he could never get himself in a groove where he felt good about his game and it showed all the way through the season."

"He had the back problems a couple of years ago, but this year, he's pretty in tune with his body and he feels good," added Morrow. "The Olympic year, with as much hockey as he's played, he's held up. He's felt 100 per cent pretty much the whole year and he's played like it."

The modest Lehtinen, who did not play competitively last season during the lockout to heal all lingering injuries, did not mention his health issues, shrugging that he's just doing the same things this season as before. He also made sure to credit his linemates.

"Nothing really different, pretty much same as what I've done in past years," he said. "I have had good chances every game, and those have been going in. Last year when we played, those weren't going in. That was a pretty tough year. It's been good to get goals again. You know, I think, overall, our whole line - Mike has been playing well all season, that's one reason. Jussi on the other wing has been good there. Our whole line has been working good this whole season."

Jokinen ranks fourth in NHL rookie scoring with 51 points (not including his nine shootout goals) and is enjoying the best season by any first-year player since the franchise moved to Dallas in 1993. The impact of Lehtinen's guidance and tutelage of him cannot be underestimated.

"He's been great," Jokinen said. "He's my roommate when we're on the road, so especially those first few weeks when I came here, the first and second month, those months would be so much difficult without Jere and the other Finns. So many new things when you come to play here, so much off the ice, too. And of course, when I played with Jere and Mike on the first line, he gave me some good advice."

Lehtinen's work ethic has always been a good standard for the rest of the club to follow and even though he's a quiet guy in the dressing room, he's clearly an important leader.

"He's scored a lot of goals, he's our leading scorer, that's one big thing," Finnish winger Antti Miettinen said. "But he's also, I think, a great example to the other players on the ice for what a good team player is. Even if he's not having his best day, he does everything he can do right defensively. Off the ice, too, he's a good example. He's working out and pays a lot of attention to his body. All around, he's a great example, especially for younger players."

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