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Lehtonen Continues Ascension As Elite Goaltender

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

Upon reflecting on the Dallas Stars’ 2011-12 season that ended in disappointing fashion, with the club barely missing the post-season for the fourth consecutive season, one positive rises above just about all others - the outstanding performance delivered by goaltender Kari Lehtonen, who inches closer and closer to elite status.

The club’s consensus MVP in his second full year in Dallas, the 28-year-old Lehtonen elevated his game to the next level this past season, posting career-bests with a 2.33 goals-against average, good for 10th in the entire league, and a .922 save percentage, which ranked eighth overall.

He backstopped the Stars to a 32-22-4 record in his 59 appearances on the season, while also matching his personal high of four shutouts in the process. Clearly, Lehtonen has grown into a crucial component of the club’s success and team management credited him for boosting the squad into playoff contention and keeping it there throughout the year.

“I know he was disappointed in his play down the stretch and that’s a lot of pressure for him to put on himself, because we weren’t in some of these positions that we were in if it wasn’t for Kari Lehtonen,” said Dallas General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk. “But that’s all part of the learning process for a goaltender. They have to go through some bumps.

“I can’t say much more. We keep talking about elite goalies, let’s hope he keeps going,” added Stars coach Glen Gulutzan. “He does the right things every day. He’s a great pro for us. I think you have great goalies and you have elite goalies and why we’re saying Kari’s elite is because his level of play is rising in important games, there’s no question about it in our minds here. Certainly, in our quarters, and probably in our division, most people think that. I can’t speak for them, but I know we know he’s an elite goalie and we’re very fortunate to have him and very fortunate to get him.”

Knowing the confidence that his coach and GM have in his abilities provides Lehtonen with some reassurance and makes him feel pretty good about his current situation.

“That’s what you like to hear - I think it’s nice that those two guys, they’ve seen what I’ve been doing here and they’re happy the way I’m playing,” said Lehtonen, who has just two career playoff games on his resume, both losses in 2007 with Atlanta. “I think that’s all you want to hear from your bosses. I’m just trying to do my job and I’m really excited to be part of the Dallas Stars, just keep going and getting better.”

As Nieuwendyk alluded to, Lehtonen did have a difficult time accepting the club’s ultimate fate, just missing out on the post-season for the second straight season with him in net.

“It’s disappointing and it’s kind of a similar situation to last year, where we were very close but not able to make it,” said Lehtonen, who went 3-7-0 over his final 10 contests, with a 3.05 GAA and a .912 SP as the club stumbled down the stretch. “It’s going to be hard to see other teams going for the Cup and we’re just eating popcorn and watching. As a professional athlete, there’s only one spot that you want to get, and that’s being in the Finals and winning the Cup. That’s something everybody tries to do every year and it’s always tough when you’re not able to get closer than that.”

In fact, Lehtonen’s season isn’t over yet, as he, along with five other Stars teammates, will be heading overseas to continue playing deep into May in the World Championships that take place in Sweden and Finland from May 4-20. An international tournament featuring the best players in the world not still in the NHL playoffs, the Worlds offer a high-stakes atmosphere for Lehtonen to get more experience performing under playoff-like pressure, especially since he is backstopping defending gold medalist Finland on home ice in Helsinki, where he is very comfortable.

“I don’t think that hurts, to go back after 10 years since I left, and to go back to the same building, I think that will be pretty cool,” said Lehtonen, who led Jokerit Helsinki to the Finnish Elite League championship in 2002, just prior to Atlanta selecting him second overall in that year’s NHL Entry Draft. “I want to get used to playing in May and extend the season, and that’s what you need to do ultimately when you play in the playoffs and go deep there, so I think that will be great for me to just make the summer a little shorter and just keep playing. It’s the same thing probably as a playoff situation, because it’s always goalie battles and you try to be the better one. I think that’ll be good for me to get that experience again.”

“I think it’s important for Kari Lehtonen to play in those types of games,” Nieuwendyk agreed. “It is in Helsinki, so I’m in favor of that. I think it’s a good experience that way. In the case of some of these guys, they want to make a good impression and get some international experience, with the Olympics right around the corner again, and I think that’s all part of it. In the case of Kari, I think it’s important that he plays under that microscope and backstops his country, I think it will be good for him. Kari is a dominant goaltender and even playing in the World Championships gives him another feather in his cap to build on.”

He’s come a long way indeed from the limbo he endured during most of the 2009-10 season following two back surgeries that sidelines him until the Stars acquired him from Atlanta on Feb. 9, 2010 in exchange for former prospect Ivan Vishnevskiy (who played in Russia last season after the Thrashers traded him to Chicago a few months later) and a fourth-round draft choice.

To some observers at the time, it seemed like quite the gamble to entrust Lehtonen with the keys to the club’s crease, especially when they signed him to a three-year, $10.65 million contract extension that summer after he’d played just 12 games for them. Sure, the 6-foot-4 Finn had shown flashes of brilliance during his years in Atlanta, but he’d also been plagued by injuries much of that time and had just recovered from those debilitating back injuries.

Now, of course, that trade ranks as one of the franchise’s most significant transactions.

“I look back on when we acquired him,” said Nieuwendyk, who actually faced Lehtonen on a regular basis during his final two NHL seasons with the Florida Panthers (2005-07), Atlanta’s division rival. “I think we got Kari Lehtonen at the right time, where maybe some teams weren’t willing to give him a chance, maybe had given up on his career in some ways. It’s been good for both of us. We’ve given him an opportunity and he’s taken full advantage of it.”

“I think even three years ago, I was too dumb to realize that I was really close to not getting another shot and wouldn’t have a chance to play in this league any more,” admitted Lehtonen of his predicament back in 2009. “I’m just grateful every day for these guys and Joe. I guess it helped when I stopped him a couple of times when we played against each other.”

One of the most important factors in Lehtonen’s rise back to prominence was his willingness to put in the work to improve his conditioning and finally put all the groin and back injuries behind him.

“When I came here, I started from the bottom, working hard and trying, first, it was to get healthy and start feeling better, work on stuff on the ice and try to get better on the ice,” Lehtonen said. “I think when you get hurt a lot, you start questioning what you’re doing. I think the hardest thing for me is I was really talented when I was a kid. I didn’t have to do anything, I didn’t have to push myself to be able to play with the teams I was with, at the level I was playing at. And when I got to the NHL, that was a huge wake-up call. ‘These guys are really good, and I really have to work hard if I have a chance to compete and play well here.’ It just took me a little longer to figure that out, after everything was so easy when I was younger. I don’t think getting a couple of years older hurts, you just get smarter.”

“There’s one thing with goaltenders, it takes time,” noted Stars goaltending coach Mike Valley. “It takes time. They have to go through their ups and downs and learn how to manage their game, not only physically, but also mentally. For him, it was a change of scenery, it was getting himself to a spot where he’s ready to work and he had so much skill when he was younger. But skill will only take you so far, and then work ethic has to take you the extra bit and he’s been able to do that. Everybody knew that he was a talent, but to do what he’s been able to do, you tip your hat and thank him for it, seeing how hard he’s worked to get himself where he is right now.”

In just two seasons in Dallas, during which Lehtonen has won a total of 66 games, he has transformed his image throughout the hockey world and is now on the cusp of widespread recognition as an elite talent. That is a testament to his determination to become the best he can be.

“(I need to) just work harder, I think I just have to do stuff on the ice and off the ice in every element of my game,” Lehtonen said. “I have to get a little better - also mentally, too. That’s a big part of being a goalie, just be strong and not let little things bother you and I think I’m getting better at that, too. That’s one thing I think will help. You always try to get better and I know that the past couple of years, I’ve been amongst the starters, probably around 20-30 or 15-25 in the league, and I’d really like to get into that top 10 elite goalie group, and I think I’m pushing towards that and getting closer. I just have to keep going and believing I can be one of those guys, that I can be the backbone of the team and play a lot and play well.”

“I think in Year One, he wanted to prove to everybody that his health was not a factor any more,” Nieuwendyk said. “I think in Year Two, he proved that and wanted to show everybody that he was a pretty dominant goaltender again. So he’s been taking the steps. I think the next step for him is really just to pick up where he left off.”

And even though Lehtonen will be entering the final season of that contract he signed back in 2010, there is little question he will remain a key contributor in Dallas for years to come.

“I’m still trying to get stronger and faster, but I think we’re on a good path and we’re doing the right things,” Lehtonen said. “It’s been a long road, but right now everything feels good. It’s exciting times with this team and it’s been lots of fun. Hopefully we have many years to go of success here.”

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