With the Dallas Stars facing an uncertain future, goaltender Kari Lehtonen is the key to the immediate and future success of this once-proud franchise.
I'm guessing the title of this article is fairly self-explanatory and most of you Stars fans are sitting there going, "Well, duh."
While saying that the new starting goaltender is the key to a hockey team's success is fairly easy statement to make, in this case it's especially true. The Dallas Stars are entering a new phase in their history in Dallas, continuing a re-branding and rebuilding under Joe Nieuwendyk that has this team headed in a new direction without the players we've become so accostomed to seeing suit up for the Stars night in and night out.
Instead the Stars are moving forward with the plan of going younger and faster up front with a defense that can best be described as "suspect". At the core of this overall change is Kari Lehtonen, the Finnish goaltender whom the Stars traded for last season with the hopes of acquiring their future franchise goaltender in the wake of Marty Turco's eventual departure.
Looking towards the future.
For most of last season, even starting last summer, Dallas Stars fans were worried about the goaltending situation after the 2009-2010 season. Nearly every fan realized that Marty Turco was likely gone after his contract expired and there was plenty of talk of what sort of return he might fetch via trade. His asking price to remain with the Stars was just going to be too much (no matter what he eventually signed for elsewhere) and with the Stars already in their "new beginnings" mode it was just a foregone conclusion that barring a miraculous, MVP-level season the franchise's most successful goaltender was likely gone.
Facing that situation, we all started to ponder the options for his replacement. Would going after a new goaltender in free agency be more affordable? The Stars lost out on the Jonas Gustavsson sweepstakes, which likely cost them a shot at Craig Anderson or any number of the free agent goaltenders available last summer. The potential class of free agents after the 09-10 season wasn't looking too promising, especially since the top free agents were the aging veterans like Turco.
Some wondered if Matt Climie or Brent Krahn would have a shot. The Stars reportedly inquired early in the season about Jaroslav Halak (that would have made the rest of the NHL season interesting) but weren't willing to give up the prospects most teams were looking for in order to give up a starting-caliber goaltender.
Instead, Joe Nieuwendyk took a gamble. The trade at the time caught everyone by surprise, as the rookie GM traded the top prospect for the Dallas Stars to Atlanta in exchange for a goaltender who was not only still hurt but who hadn't played in the NHL in nearly a year.
The Stars were willing to trade defensemen Ivan Vishnevskiy in exchange for Kari Lehtonen, knowing that the potential the Finnish goaltender possesses would be well worth the price of losing their top prospect. It was a calculated risk by Nieuwendyk, who at the time had no clue if Lehtonen could still play at the level he did before his injuries. If the gamble paid off, however, the Stars potentially had acquired their franchise goaltender of the future.
A gamble pays off.
When the Stars traded for Lehtonen there were certainly more questions than answers. Could he still play? Was he in shape? Could he stay in shape? Would he be able to prove he was healthy and could still play by the end of the season?
The Stars came out of the Olympic break with the plan of playing Kari Lehtonen as the backup to Marty Turco. At the time, the Stars were still in the hunt for the playoffs and just a few wins coming out of the break and the Stars would be right back in the thick of things. Unfortunately, Turco played at a very mediocre level and the team in front of him wasn't any better; the Stars went on a devastating losing streak and all hopes for the playoffs were nearly instantly lost.
The Stars then decided to alter their plan a bit in regards to the goaltending situation. With the trade to acquire Lehtonen it was obvious the team was planning on moving on without Turco; the Stars then decided to give Lehtonen the majority of the games in the latter parts of the season to see if he still had the ability they traded for.
After a few shaky starts, Lehtonen's play evened out before he began to slowly take over games and show he still had the ability to dominate. In his last nine starts of the season Lehtonen was 6-3-0 with a 2.44 goals-against average and very healthy .926 save percentage. He was once again healthy, he was in shape and he was having fun out on the ice once more.
Additionally, the players in front of him appeared to play better when he was in net than they did with Turco. Whether it was a matter of being reinvigorated with the future goaltender in net, or Turco just giving up a bit, it was obvious that in the final two months of the season the Stars were a better team with Lehtonen in net.
It certainly appears that Lehtonen fits Marc Crawford's system much better than Marty Turco was able to. Lehtonen, from his days in Atlants, was used to being "left on an island" in a system that exposes the goaltender. Without Turco's puckhandling, it also appeared that the defensemen were more sure of themselves as they were forced to play the puck more and make those breakout decisions themselves. In Crawford's system, this ability by the defense is perhaps most important of all and an aspect that the Stars could never get right with Turco in net.
Lehtonen showed in a brief amount of time that he still has that ability to be an elite goaltender in the NHL. That's the risk the Stars took in making the trade. Lehtonen has all of the skill and the talent to be one of the best in the league; now it's just a matter of proving he can handle a full load.
What about the future?
The Dallas Stars were certainly pleased with his performance in a short amount of time, giving Lehtonen a three-year contract that averages $3.55 million each season. It's certainly another gamble by Nieuwendyk, as Lehtonen has not been healthy for a full season in a few years now. Looking at some of the contracts given to goaltenders this summer, it's also painful to see this amount of money promised to a goaltender that is still a big a risk. Yet with Lehtonen being owed at least $3 million as a RFA anyway, it was a gamble the Stars needed to take.
Mike Heika of the Dallas Morning News wrote a few weeks back about Lehtonen's work this summer to get back into shape and to stay healthy. He makes a great point about how a change of scenery has seemed to do wonders for his work ethic and should erase the concerns over his overall health and the shape he's in.
Lehtonen gained a reputation for being an out of shape player in Atlanta, someone who did the minimum to get by. This likely contributed to several of his injuries, but Heika notes that this summer the Stars are taking more steps in pushing him to improve and to maintain himself in better shape. He has a personal trainer at his home in Atlanta, and Lehtonen told DallasStars.com that he's working much earlier than ever before in getting ready for the upcoming season.
With any change of scenery and a fresh start, you hope that the player is self-motivated to be the best he can be. That certainly appears to be the case with Lehtonen who looked to be reinvigorated and actually having fun out on the ice with the Stars late in the season.
"I have a lot to prove for myself and I want to get back to be a great goalie in this league. If I'm able to do that, I'm sure I'll help this club a lot."
So how is Lehtonen the key to the Dallas Stars success?
The Stars are hoping to accomplish the near-impossible this season: be a playoff-contending team with a roster that is still a work in progress -- especially on defense. For the Stars to even hope of being a playoff team this season they'll need a magical year from Lehtonen. They'll need the sort of inspired performance they couldn't get from Turco and Lehtonen certainly has that ability to do so.
If Kari Lehtonen can build upon the great play he showed at the end of the season and become a consistent (and healthy) staple in net for the Dallas Stars, then this team can actually start winning again and can regain some of the faith in the fanbase they've lost the past few years. Great play by the goaltender can inspire and drive an entire team, no matter what shortcomings it may have on the roster, and that's exactly what the Dallas Stars are going to need.
With the team in a state of flux this season, Lehtonen needs to be the rock and the steadying hand that holds it all together. The Stars don't need an MVP, Vezina-esque season but they do need a goaltender who can steal games and who give them the confidence to play the aggressive style the coach is preaching.
The Dallas Stars took a gamble on Kari Lehtonen. He's received his contract, now it's time for him to prove their risk was well worth it.