Ask anyone surrounding the team, and they’ll all admit that they wouldn’t be in the midst of a thrilling playoff race, currently occupying the Pacific Division lead (and, subsequently, the Western Conference’s third seed), without Lehtonen’s excellence this season.
He was a primary contributor to their eye-opening 11-3-0 start to the year and was a major factor in the squad’s inspiring 10-0-1 run earlier this month that just might have been the defining stretch of their season.
And he stepped up with another brilliant performance Saturday afternoon, making 35 saves and earning the game’s number one star in a critical 4-1 victory over the Calgary Flames, improving his personal record to 31-17-4 on the year.
Where would the Stars be without Lehtonen? It’s scary to even think about it.
“I can’t say much more. We keep talking about elite goalies, let’s hope he keeps going,” Dallas coach Glen Gulutzan said, struggling to find more superlatives to describe Lehtonen’s impact on the club’s fortunes. “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, giving our team a lot of confidence. You see a different level coming out of Kari right now, it’s a great thing.”
The win over Calgary gave Lehtonen a stellar 2.23 goals-against average, ranking ninth overall in the NHL, while his .925 save percentage sits seventh in the league. If he finishes the season anywhere near those numbers, which is extremely likely, they’ll both be career-best figures.
His 31 wins also rank 10th in the league, while he has also matched his career-high with four shutouts, including two in a row March 10 and 13 in big wins over Anaheim and Minnesota when the club only scored three total goals for him.
Officially listed at 6-foot-4 and 217 pounds, the 28-year-old native of Helsinki, Finland pointed out that he enjoys playing in the intense pressure cooker of the playoff race, which could be one factor in his ability to thrive under such conditions.
“When you’re a goalie in this league, there’s always a lot of pressure,” shrugged Lehtonen, who earned playoff MVP honors while helping Jokerit Helsinki win the Finnish Elite League championship in 2002. “I’m just trying to do my best and have fun and hopefully, we can keep it up and keep winning. These are some important games. We just have to keep going.”
Having only played in two NHL playoff contests (back in 2007 with Atlanta) over the course of his seven-plus year career, Lehtonen is highly motivated by the opportunity to lead the Stars back to the post-season.
“When you lose, it hurts a lot more this time of year, and when you win, you’re more excited about it,” Lehtonen said of playing his best down the stretch. “There’s only a few games left, so it’s easy to get excited and to go out there with lots of energy, with that much on the line.”
Gulutzan believes that once Lehtonen proves he can backstop his team to a playoff spot and perform well on the league’s biggest stage, then he will receive a little more recognition around the hockey world for his accomplishments and will be considered among the league’s top tier of netminders.
“There’s no question about it in our minds here,” said Gulutzan on whether Lehtonen belongs in the elite category. “But I think going forward here, playoffs will be a big thing for him and to get us to the playoffs I think would solidify in most people’s minds that, ‘Yeah, he is.’ But certainly, in our quarters, and probably in our division, most people think that. I can’t speak for them, but I know we do here. We know he’s an elite goalie and we’re very fortunate to have him and very fortunate to get him.”
At the time, it appeared to some observers that the Stars’ acquisition of Lehtonen back on Feb. 9, 2010, in exchange for prospect Ivan Vishnevskiy (who was later traded by the Thrashers to Chicago and has yet to play in North America) and a fourth-round draft pick, seemed like somewhat of a desperation move.
After Lehtonen was chosen second overall in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, he had shown flashes of brilliance over his years in Atlanta, but he’d also been plagued by injuries much of that time and had just recovered from multiple back surgeries that wiped out the first half of his 2009-10 season.
But with former Stars goaltender Marty Turco showing signs of decline and no legitimate up-and-coming prospect options, General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk opted to deal for Lehtonen in a trade that now ranks among the best in franchise history.
It also seemed like quite the gamble that summer when Nieuwendyk allowed Turco to leave as a free agent and entrusted Lehtonen, who had played just 12 games for the Stars at that point, with the keys to the club’s crease, signing him to a three-year, $10.65 million contract extension.
But a new setting, a fresh start with a new organization that believed in him, and an increased commitment to conditioning, has helped Lehtonen achieve impressive heights since then.
“When I came here, I started from the bottom,” acknowledged Lehtonen, who went 6-4-0 with a 2.81 goals-against average and a .911 save percentage in those first 12 games with Dallas at the end of 2009-10. “We’d been working hard and trying to - first, it was to get healthy and start feeling better, work on stuff on the ice and try to get better on the ice. I don’t think getting a couple of years older hurts, either, you just get smarter. 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.”
“You look at him now, he’s 28, and 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.”
Lehtonen pointed out that a key part of his resurgence, in his quest to reduce his penchant for injuries, including multiple groin and back issues, was first to lose some weight while working himself up to a significantly better fitness level.
“I was around 230 when I got here and now I’m under 210,” Lehtonen said of his weight. “I just feel a little quicker and 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. 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, when everything was so easy when I was younger.”
“He had so much skill when he was younger,” Valley said. “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. I see him every day, so maybe it’s not a surprise to me, but for people on the outside, maybe it is.”
Lehtonen also admits that during his days in Atlanta, he didn’t quite grasp just how tenuous his NHL career was, and is now grateful for the opportunity he received, and has taken full advantage of, in Dallas.
“I think even three years ago, I was too dumb to realize that I was really close to not getting another shot and that I wouldn’t have a chance to play in this league any more,” said Lehtonen, who led Finland to a bronze medal at the 2002 World Junior Championships, while being named the tournament’s top goaltender. “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 (back when Nieuwendyk suited up for Atlanta’s Southeast Division rival in Florida from 2005-07). It’s been a long ride, but hopefully we have many years to go of success here. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
So far, so good. As for his ongoing ascension into the ranks of the NHL’s elite, Lehtonen perhaps underestimates how much progress he’s already made towards earning that distinction.
“You always try to get better,” said Lehtonen, who is just three victories shy of his career high of 34, set in 2006-07 with Atlanta and equaled last season. “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.”