Lehtonen, who was acquired in a trade with Atlanta on Feb. 9 and signed a three-year contract extension May 11, will become the franchise’s first new number one goaltender since 2002-03.
His stellar performance over the final month of last season proved to the Stars that Lehtonen would be a worthy successor to Turco and earned him the contract extension, which will pay him $10.65 million ($3.55 million average per year) over the next three seasons.
Over the final 14 games, of which he started nine, Lehtonen sparkled, fashioning a 6-3-0 mark, including his 100th career victory, with a 2.44 goals-against average and .926 save percentage.
“We’re moving forward with Kari,” Stars General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk said. “We’ve had a long tradition here of having premium goaltenders. Marty Turco has been a solid goaltender here for over a decade now and has done great things on and off the ice. But I just felt for the long-term success of our franchise, we needed to acquire Kari Lehtonen
. I think the way he played in the last 10-12 games, his performance showed that with a good summer of training, we hope that he can be an elite goaltender once again like he was early in his career.”
Lehtonen, who has had trouble with injuries throughout his career, has been working hard this summer to make sure he continues re-gaining his form that led to his selection by the Thrashers with the second overall pick in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft.
Last season, Lehtonen missed the first four-plus months of the year (leading up to his trade to Dallas) recovering from multiple back surgeries, and after working his way back into shape, finished the year strong.
“When I came here, I started from zero,” said the 6-foot-4, 215-pound native of Helsinki, of his fitness level. “I had no clue if my body could handle playing and all that stuff. The last maybe eight games, I felt very comfortable. I think it also helped that the games went well, and with me starting to get comfortable being with the new team. It was great to see that I was able to do it and that gives me a lot of confidence going into next year.”
To that end, Lehtonen is determined to remain healthy this season. In an attempt to keep his conditioning level up and to prevent future injuries, Lehtonen altered his summer program a bit from what he’s done in the past.
“I probably started in past years started doing things (in early July) and this year, I started doing things almost right away,” said Lehtonen, who still has a house in Atlanta. “These guys in Dallas hooked me up with a strength coach in Atlanta and I started going there five times a week and doing very specific things for my back and for my hips and groins and just kind of getting those parts stronger. Now we’re starting to do more regular things, like cardio things and stuff like that. I’ve done a lot more and realize that it’s very important.”
Lehtonen has shown that when he’s healthy and gets into a good groove, he can be an elite NHL netminder. It’s no coincidence that the one NHL season he didn’t miss any time was his best - in 2006-07, he recorded a 34-24-9 record in 68 games, with a 2.79 goals-against average and .912 save percentage, leading Atlanta to the franchise’s only playoff appearance in 10 years of existence.
Now he hopes to re-capture that form and in the process, help the Stars find their way back into the post-season after not qualifying for the last two years.
“I have a lot to prove for myself and I want to get back to be a great goalie in this league,” said Lehtonen, who has shined on the international stage as well, helping Finland to a silver medal at the 2007 World Championships and winning bronze medals at the World Junior Championships in both 2002 and ‘03. “If I’m able to do that, I’m sure I’ll help this club a lot.”
With the Stars’ acquisition of veteran netminder Andrew Raycroft, who is expected to battle Brent Krahn for the backup job, Lehtonen is ready to team up with a new partner this coming season.
“He’s a veteran guy and he’s going to come here and push me to play better and I’m going to try to push him,” Lehtonen said of Raycroft, who backed up Roberto Luongo in Vancouver last season. “I think we have three guys here who can play in the NHL and who really want to play, so I think it’s a great situation. What makes goalies better is when you have somebody pushing you and you have to go the extra mile to earn the ice time. That’s good.”
Lehtonen also didn’t feel slighted when the Stars chose highly-touted goaltender Jack Campbell
with their first round pick (11th overall) in June’s NHL Entry Draft. While he knows he’s the main man here in the foreseeable future, he recognizes that someday he’ll need to compete for his starting job - and that’s okay with him.
“I used to think things like that a lot more, but since I’ve got older, I’ve realized it’s fair game with the goalie position,” Lehtonen said of the notion that Campbell’s presence in the organization is a potential threat to his long-term job security. “It’s not nice that only one goalie can play, but it’s only fair- if you’re playing better than the other guy, you get your ice time and you get to be the guy. It doesn’t affect me. It even pushes me to be better and better because I know there’s an elite kid coming who wants this spot as much I do. It’s a great draft pick for this organization. Now I think we’re very strong in the goalie department for years to come. I think that’s good.”
Lehtonen certainly sounds confident, like a player who knows he’s going to have a strong season, and that’s got to be comforting to Dallas management.
“We were excited to acquire Kari Lehtonen
in February because of his size, skill and potential to once again be a top-tier goaltender in this league,” Nieuwendyk said. “His play during the last month of the season reaffirmed our belief that he can be our starter for next year and seasons to come.”
Lehtonen’s plans for the rest of the summer is to continue working out, to ensure he’s in the best shape possible come training camp.
“I’ll go to Atlanta and keep going with the strength guy there,” said Lehtonen. “I’m going to come here early, in August, and work with the goalie coach (Mike Valley) and the other players that are starting to come in at that time. I want to be here early to feel comfortable with everything.”