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How Kari Lehtonen has the Stars shining again in Dallas

Sean Leahy
Puck Daddy

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There once was a time when Kari Lehtonen(notes) won 34 games in a season and helped lead the Atlanta Thrashers to the 2007 Stanley Cup playoffs; the first, and only, postseason appearance in franchise history.

At the time, that was considered progress for both the goaltender and for the franchise.

Over the next two seasons, that "progress" fell apart on both sides. Atlanta finished fourth in the Southeast Division and Lehtonen would play 48 and 46 games, respectively, but be derailed with a groin injury that he first experienced during the 2005-06 season, his first full campaign in the NHL.

The No. 2 overall selection in the 2002 Entry Draft couldn't shake the "bust" label that he'd been tagged with, and it wasn't until last February that the Thrashers finally decided a change of scenery was needed and dealt the 27-year old to the Dallas Stars, who would later raise eyebrows when they signed him to a three-year, $10.65 million deal after playing just 10 games for the team.

Dallas GM Joe Nieuwendyk took a leap of faith and so far, he's been rewarded by Lehtonen's surprising play this season helping to lead the Stars to the top of the Pacific Division and the third seed in the Western Conference.

Despite the injuries that plagued his career, Lehtonen said he never took off-season conditioning seriously and over the summer, the Stars decided to invest in their investment and put Lehtonen on a strict workout program.

Maybe it was the feeling of being indebited to the Stars organization for having faith and taking a chance on him. Or maybe it was Lehtonen facing his hockey mortality that made him straighten up and realize the injuries that derailed his progress earlier in his career could vanish if he put in hard work over the summer.

Now with 35 starts and 20 wins on the season -- he hadn't won more than 19 games since the '06-07 season -- Lehtonen is recapturing the success that was defining his early days in the NHL.

The fruits of the Lehtonen deal have been one part of the Dallas Stars' revitalization process that's been underway since Joe Nieuwendyk took over as General Manager in May of 2009. With ownership issues still being worked out, the team in front of Lehtonen has been slowly molded into a winner, and as Brandon Worley wrote, a new identity has been found for the franchise.

From Defending Big D:

It's amazing what can happen when a head coach and general manager have the same vision and work to complement each other to move forward and fulfill the vision they have for success. Marc Crawford has this hockey team dialed in completely, charging ahead as one of the best teams in the NHL. Joe Nieuwendyk has made all the right moves, and has even managed to lock down the young players on the team for the foreseeable future.

Perhaps most impressive is how Nieuwendyk has managed to provide a calming force amidst a sea of uncertainty and turmoil as the team fights through financial adversity and the rocky sale of the franchise. He's manage to insulate the team from as many distractions as possible, somehow making the impending free agency of the team's best player a sidenote while the Stars win night after night.

When Nieuwendyk was hired, we were excited about the possibility of the Stars becoming a strong willed and hard working team once more -- just as they were when Nieuwendyk was playing. Though the early returns were mixed, and sometimes troubling, it's taken less than two seasons for the Stars general manager to put his mark on the franchise and the NHL. Halfway through the 2010-2011 season, the Stars are a hard working and mentally tough team, taking on the personality of the quietly intense general manager that is running the show.

Many wondered how the Stars would react after letting the heart and soul of the franchise, Mike Modano(notes), go over the summer, while trying to rebound from a last place Pacific Division finish. But behind Nieuwendyk's crafty management, a consistent nightly effort and the rejuvenation of Lehtonen's career, the Stars are back as a top team in the NHL, much earlier than expected.

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