The veteran right wing has had some incredible seasons with the Stars, and he’s long been known as one of the best defensive forwards in the league. He’s a smart player, a reliable one who doesn’t make many mistakes.
But in recent seasons, Lehtinen has also been an oft-injured player. His body, which he keeps in tremendous shape every season, has nevertheless betrayed him more often than not lately. Groin injuries have been problematic over the past three seasons, and the inability to stay healthy has Lehtinen wondering: was the 2009-10 Stars season the last of his great career?
“Whatever I do has to be the right decision for me,” Lehtinen said when the Stars had their end-of-season meetings in mid-April. “It’s a big decision, so that’s why I want to make sure I take the time.”
Lehtinen’s earned the right to take as much time as he needs. The three-time Selke Trophy winner just wrapped up his 14th NHL season, all with the Stars. Lehtinen has long been a steady performer for the Stars, as well as a fan favorite. The offensive part of his game was fairly consistent, and his defensive ability was always stalwart.
But since the 2007-08 season, Lehtinen has been plagued by the injury bug. After playing in 73 games during 2006-07, Lehtinen was in just 48 the following season. Same for 2008-09, when Lehtinen began struggling with groin injuries. He played in 58 games this past season. But the grind of injury riddled seasons may be catching up with him.
“After every injury it’s starting to get tougher coming back, doing rehab, day after day, to get ready to play,” Lehtinen said. “That’s the biggest question, my body. The last few years it’s been tough. It’s been frustrating and it’s not getting easier. I can still play, but it’s about my health.”
Stars general manager Joe Nieuwendyk, who was also Lehtinen’s teammate during his playing days here, said, like Mike Modano, Lehtinen isn’t on a deadline to make his decision.
“They deserve the time to let the dust settle and see where their thoughts are. We’ll get together and talk about their future and how it could possibly fit in with what we’re trying to do moving forward,” Nieuwendyk said. “I’ve been there (contemplating retirement) before. Many players who come toward the twilight of their career realize you have to take the time to understand the grind that it is and the commitment you have to make.”
Commitment has never been an issue with Lehtinen. Nobody can doubt his training regimen through the years. When he did come back from an injury, he was 100 percent ready to go. He always made sure he could give his best every game. Now, that may be out of his control. It’s just part of the hockey grind that catches up with every player, more so with those dealing with chronic injuries.
“There weren’t too many times when I felt (healthy),” Lehtinen said. “That’s why it’s tough. When I felt good those few times, I felt like I could still play and help the team.”
Lehtinen’s help has been tremendous for the Stars, and it’s been appreciated by the organization. The fans have long recognized his dedication to the game, too, and showed their admiration for possibly the final time at the Stars’ last home contest of the season.
Now, it’s time for reflection and contemplation. If this was it for Lehtinen, he leaves with a great legacy: a 14-year career, 243 goals, 500-plus points, three Selke trophies and one Stanley Cup. It’s an impressive resume for one of the league’s best defensive forwards. Whether it continues or not is up to him. And he’s earned the right to take his time and think about it.
“Overall, I never thought I’d play this many years. It’s been huge,” Lehtinen said. “I’ve had a lot of injuries, but I’ve been lucky to play 14 years. I don’t want to put any timeline on it. When I feel right I’ll make a decision. I don’t want to hurry that because it’s going to be a big decision.”