I bet you've heard the old adage about goaltending being "90% mental". It's true, but then again a lot of sports success is dominated by the brain.
We hear about mental toughness, and belief and confidence every day. A player or a team has it and they win. A player/team doesn't and you have poor play and losses - a lot of losses.
But back to goaltending.
I played the position. I know the strain of expectation, the crush of pressure and the crisis of confidence that can seep in when pucks are going in at an accelerated rate. That's when it gets very lonely. Eyes glance back at you with doubt from teammates and visual daggers from behind the bench do not go unnoticed. At times the erosion of confidence gets exacerbated further when those looks become words into microphones or appear in print.
The easy blamestorming conclusion in hockey is to point a finger at the goalie. (Of course it's also the over-simplistic avenue to explain why you won. So, ya)
"Win as a team, lose as a team"? Please.
Goaltender is a position that has no relation to the rest of the players in the game yet it dominates outcomes and can make coaching staffs either over-analyze losses or take way too much credit for successes.
When you are "on" as a goalie there is a sort of euphoria to playing the position. Your prefrontal cortex shuts down and you just play. Stakes are so high and feedback is so immediate (You either make the save or you don't and therefore a permanent record of your inabilities is posted on the scoreboard) . You are a savior, a hero. You get bowed to by teammates and showered with audible admiration from those in the stands every time you do well. A tap on the pads. A standing "O" (That's intoxicating). Hell, you're dressed as a superhero - mask and all. You control destinies, including your own. You're a difference maker. You are a god at home and a heartbreaking day-ruiner on the road. When you are great at your craft, It. Is. Awesome.
Kari hasn't been great this season, and his backups - as plentiful as Spinal Tap drummers - have been worse.
I feel for the big guy. He is battling a crisis of confidence and some hitches in his mechanics that have him doubting his ability and beating himself. He's much better than he has shown. Much.
Let's look at the Big Finn as if he were a house: He's not a tear down and he isn't a property to just rid yourself of in a short-sale. He's a reno. A reno that has what they call in the real estate business, "good bones". You fixed the foundation when you traded for him (back surgery and fitness) now let's add an addition on (alter that stance) and update that kitchen (work on his mind and mental toughness) and maybe splash on some new paint while you're at it. (Oh, and an upgrade to the fence and alarm system around this house wouldn't hurt either). What you ultimately want is a structure that can withstand severe weather while still having wonderful curb appeal. Kari Lehtonen should be that.
Years ago a goalie just had to figure his own sh*t out. There was no Goalie Coach or Goalie Consultant, or video clips - just you and your mind and a desire to fix what was wrong through hard work and repetition, and character.
Nowadays the position is the most coached (and coddled) position in our sport - and maybe all sports. Its 1:1 or 1:2 in ratio and the coaches - like the Stars Mike Valley - put their heart, soul and sweat into having their goalies ready to be great. They provide incredible information and feedback and they care like the most doting of helicopter parents. But they can't get in the net for them, and for the most part they can't get in their heads the way a goalie sometimes needs - only a person with a PHD (or a bar cloth) can do that.
The mind of a goalie. It’s the most needed 'muscle'.
I know of many examples of goaltenders either taking their play to another level or repairing their leaky state through psychological help, Two of the better cases are Marty Turco and Marc Andre Fleury.
Marty was setting records with his regular season netminding back in the mid-2000s but was not playing to his elite capabilities come playoff time. There seemed to be a blockage. Then along came the 2008 run to the Western Conference Final and that red dot patch sewn onto the underside of his blocker. The patch was part of his mental coaching from the team's sports psychologist, Scott McFadden and Turco kept its meaning a secret throughout three brilliant series. (He told me its origin was born out of his pre-draft interview with McFadden when he divulged an affinity for the color red)
Fleury had a similar yet far more acute playoff mind fart going. He was so bad that he was actually scoring on himself and appeared to have completely lost his ability to play the position. It was bizarre. So over the summer, then GM Ray Shero suggested he see a psychologist in an effort to rid himself of the self-doubt demons that had infected his abilities. This season he has played fantastic, is probably a Vezina candidate, and earned a contract extension from new GM Jim Rutherford. But the real test is still a little over a month away when his Pittsburgh Penguins face a first round opponent in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Would Kari Lehtonen benefit from seeing a "shrink"? In my opinion, yes. I sure wish I'd had that tool available, and others who play(ed) the position have certainly proved its worth.
Get him believing in himself again and not overthinking things and you have your 65 game stud back. There are too many reclamation stories (Dubnyk, Mason, Halak, Smith - who may need it again, Fleury, and others) spitting pucks in NHL nets to think otherwise.