The Dallas Stars locked up one of their key players long-term on Friday, signing goaltender Kari Lehtonen to a five-year, $29.5 million contract extension.
“We’ve been talking to Kari and his agent for some time now. We felt it was important to lock up Kari for our franchise,” said Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk. “He was really good through the process and we feel really good that we have Kari locked up for the next five years.”
When the Stars traded for Lehtonen in February 2010 it was seen as a bit of a gamble. Lehtonen’s talent had taken a backseat to conditioning issues and injury woes. But Lehtonen has worked hard on his conditioning since joining the Stars, has played in 128 games over the past two seasons and has played well. Last season he put up some career-best numbers, ranking eighth in the league in save percentage (.922) and tenth in goals against average (2.33).
“We recognized the talent and he had some things to overcome health-wise and he’s done that,” said Nieuwendyk. “He’s been nothing but a great teammate for our guys here. I think everybody is pretty pleased that he is locked up.”
The move to Dallas was a fresh start for Lehtonen, one that has paid dividends for him and it’s a big reason why he wants to remain a Dallas Star.
“These guys gave me a chance and I told Joe yesterday again thanks a lot for giving me a chance to play,” Lehtonen said. “Things have worked out well and we’re going in the right direction. I think I can play better and better. That’s why I wanted to stay here.”
The 28-year-old Lehtonen, who would have been an unrestricted free agent next July, is scheduled to make $4.25 million this season. He’s in the final year of a three-year contract that averaged $3.55 million per season. This new deal will pay him $5.9 million per season and makes him among the ten highest paid goaltenders in the league based on current contracts.
“He’s proven that worth in his area when you look at some of the contracts that come through over the last year or two,” said Nieuwendyk. “I think he’s earned it. He’s played hard for us and he plays well for us. We’re comfortable with that number.”
The five-year term, which will keep Lehtonen under contract through 2017-18, allows the Stars time to develop some of their goaltending prospects like Jack Campbell, the team’s first round pick (11th overall) in 2010.
“We don’t have to rush any of these young goaltenders,” said Nieuwendyk. “We have Cristopher Nilstorp here now and he is showing some promise. I think we’re well-stocked in the net now, but Kari is clearly our main guy right now and that is a great thing. It gives Jack some time and Cristopher some time to season their games at the pro level, and then we’ll go from there.”
For now, though, Lehtonen is the man in net and he still believes he can be better, and he still has goals to achieve.
“Getting better at every little thing,” he said. “If I can do that I am sure we can have some success here. It starts from making the playoffs and making noise over there. I think we have improved the team, too, which will help me.”