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Stars commit to Lehtonen as top goalie

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

If there was any doubt about how much faith the Dallas Stars have in Kari Lehtonen, the club proved it beyond question today when they agreed to terms with the 26-year-old Finnish netminder on a three-year contract extension worth $10.65 million ($3.55 million per year average). 

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While there are always personnel changes from one season to the next, the Stars in 2010-11 are destined to be quite different, with perhaps the biggest lineup alteration being the departure of 10-year veteran goaltender Marty Turco as a free agent. That means Lehtonen, who was acquired in a trade with Atlanta on Feb. 9, will be counted upon to carry the load as the number one man between the pipes. 

Lehtonen shone for the Stars down the stretch, demonstrating just how good he can be if he’s in tip-top shape and remains healthy. 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’ve had a long tradition here of having premium goaltenders,” Stars General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk said. “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. 

“We’re moving forward with Kari. I just felt it was time we went in a different direction.”

“The last maybe eight games, I felt very comfortable,” said Lehtonen, whose four-plus years with Atlanta resulted in a 94-83-17 record with a 2.87 goals-against average and .912 save percentage, along with 14 shutouts. “I think it also helped that the games went well, and with me starting to get comfortable being with the new team. It feels great to be here.”

Lehtonen has already progressed a long way since arriving in Dallas just before the Olympic break. At that point, he was still recovering from two off-season back surgeries, and was in the process of working his way back into game shape. His first three appearances did not go all that smoothly, as he surrendered nine goals on 54 shots in 122 minutes of action.

But as he continued to work diligently with strength and conditioning coach J.J. McQueen and goaltending coach Mike Valley, the 6-foot-4, 215-pound Lehtonen began to see results and started to re-establish himself as an impact netminder.  

“A lot of it obviously stems from his conditioning, and just getting back in the rhythm of things,” Valley said of how getting in better shape affected Lehtonen’s game. “He could keep himself in a spot where he was able to make recovery saves a lot quicker. So after the first shot, he could put himself in position to get prepared for the second shot or the rebound opportunity. He covered the ice really well, and while he’s down on the ice, he shifted back and forth real well. It was a lot of small things like that, that basically come out of conditioning, because when you get tired, that’s when mistakes happen.”

“When I came here, I started from zero,” Lehtonen said of his fitness level. “I had no clue if my body could handle playing and all that stuff. It was great to see that I was able to do it and that gives me a lot of confidence going into next year.”

Keeping Lehtonen healthy is crucial to his effectiveness, as he had a history of injuries during his tenure in Atlanta. It’s no coincidence that the one 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, and led the Thrashers to the franchise’s only playoff appearance. 

As the long off-season began, Lehtonen indicated that his back was totally healed and he was feeling fine.

“Great, no issues at all,” he said. “It feels very good.”

One aspect of the game where Lehtonen’s presence in the crease requires his teammates to make adjustments, revolves around how he plays the puck. Since Turco is one of the three best goalies in the league at that particular skill, often coming out of the net to make passes up ice or to leave the puck in a certain spot for his defensemen, Dallas blueliners will have to adapt to Lehtonen’s more modest abilities in that area.

“Obviously, he doesn’t play the puck as well as Marty, Marty’s the best in the league,” acknowledged top defenseman Stephane Robidas. “But you can’t ask that, they’re different and whoever’s going to be in net for us next year, we have to make sure we support him, and have confidence in our goalie.” 

“Yeah, it’s going to be a big change,” defenseman Trevor Daley added. “Marty’s an exceptional puck-mover. I don’t think there’s a goalie better than him at moving the puck in the game today, so that’s going to change next year. There are plays where Marty just makes the play back there on his own, and we moved to let Marty make the plays or there would be a set-up where he’d look to us and hit the winger, or getting out and leaving pucks in position for when we get back there. There’s a lot of different things Marty was exceptional at, where if it does change, it’s safe to say we’re going to have to work a lot harder now for sure. But all we ask of goalies is to stop the puck.”
Lehtonen admitted he wants to upgrade that part of his game and noted that he learned a lot in that area over the final two months of 2009-10, just from observing and practicing with Turco. Lehtonen pointed out that he and the Stars’ blueliners still had some bugs to work out as far as getting used to each other.

“It takes some time, we still have some things that take more time, but it’s still basically, stop the puck and everybody’s happy,” said Lehtonen, who helped Finland win silver at the 2007 World Championships. “There are still some things you can tweak with the players, like communications and me handling the puck - it’s more work for the defensemen when I can’t play the puck the same way Marty can. But I think that’s one thing that I’m getting a lot better at.  I still need to work on that and we have time now to work on that.”

After signing his new extension, Lehtonen will have at least three years to hone his craft here in Dallas and finally fully realize the promise he displayed for years in Atlanta. And as long as he can stay out of the trainer’s room, his re-emergence will hopefully go hand-in-hand with the Stars getting back to the playoffs after not qualifying two years in a row.

“It starts with your goaltender - you need solid goaltending in this league, and if you’re going to win, your goaltender has to be in the picture,” Stars coach Marc Crawford said. “I think you see a little bit more of what our organization saw in (Lehtonen). He gave our group confidence.”

“I have a lot to prove for myself and I want to get back to be a great goalie in this league,” said Lehtonen, the second overall pick in the 2002 Entry Draft. “If I’m able to do that, I’m sure I’ll help this club a lot.” 

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