Brenden Morrow(notes) came to the rink for a preseason game and found a picture hanging in his locker. He didn’t describe the picture. Let’s just say it was a prank, and he wanted to find out which member of the Dallas Stars would dare mess with the captain.
The only player who had arrived before Morrow was Kari Lehtonen(notes), the quiet, stone-faced goaltender. Couldn’t have been him. So who was it then? One of the coaches? The trainer? The strength guy?
“I find out a week later it was Kari Lehtonen,” Morrow said, smiling. “He flies under the radar a little bit, but he’ll zing you when you least expect it.”
Overlook Lehtonen at your own risk. Injuries might have sent him into obscurity with the Atlanta Thrashers, but he’s off to a strong start with the Stars, showing the kind of player and person he can be. He has performed so well that the Stars are one of only two NHL teams with an unblemished record – the Toronto Maple Leafs are also 4-0 – and he has felt so comfortable that he has flashed his funny side.
“We can win hockey games in here, and I think we’re going to be a team that’s going to surprise a lot of people,” Stars winger Adam Burish(notes) said. “I think our goaltending is as good as anyone’s in the league. I think Kari is an elite guy. I don’t think a lot of people have had a chance to see him, because he’s been hurt a lot, but I think he’s as good as I’ve played with. He’s a freak back there.”
After a 4-1 victory over the Detroit Red Wings on Thursday night, Lehtonen leaned against a wall in the dressing room. Music was blaring in celebration. Lehtonen was deep in thought, trying to find the right words to put his journey into perspective.
“The last couple years in Atlanta, they were very hard,” Lehtonen said. “But you just …”
“You just don’t know, like, how …”
“Like, I didn’t know how much I needed change before it happened, and I realize this is actually a very good thing to get somewhere else and get started again.”
Lehtonen’s talent always has been obvious. He’s 6-foot-4, 215 pounds. He’s so flexible that Morrow likens him to Gumby. He’s so focused that Stars goaltending coach Mike Valley raves about his “processing speed,” how he reads the puck off the blade.
The first time Valley saw Lehtonen, Valley’s Swedish Elite League team was in training camp in Finland. Lehtonen, now 26, was 18 playing for Jokerit Helsinki. “I remember looking and saying, ‘Wow, this kid’s special,’ ” Valley said. The Thrashers drafted Lehtonen second overall in 2002, and in 2006-07, he led them to their only playoff appearance.
Lehtonen’s problems have been conditioning and health, raising a chicken-or-the-egg question: Was he not in top shape because he was hurt, or was he hurt because he was not in top shape? He had multiple groin injuries. He had two back surgeries. He didn’t play in the NHL in 2009-10 until after Feb. 9, when the Thrashers had traded him to the Stars for defense prospect Ivan Vishnevskiy(notes) and a fourth-round pick.
“Everything was just rolling in the same place in Atlanta,” Lehtonen said. “I think my development, me getting better as a goalie, it just wasn’t going anywhere. I was mentally just grinding it out. I really didn’t know what was wrong and things like that. This helped a lot, to get to a new place and get to work with new people.”
Lehtonen clicked with Valley almost immediately. He went 6-4 down the stretch. “He came to me the end of last season and said, ‘Let’s work really hard this summer. I’ll go wherever it takes,’ ” Valley said. Because Valley lived in Dallas and Lehtonen was moving there anyway, they hit the ice in the Big D in July. They worked one-on-one four or five times a week, fine-tuning technique and strengthening key areas. Lehtonen has since gotten into routines for everything from eating right, to lifting weights, to stretching, to resting. “It’s really just making sure that you’re treating your body like a Formula One car,” Valley said.
So far, go good. The Stars have talent up front and an up-tempo attack. What they lack is a strong defense and flexibility to fix it, with cash-strapped owner Tom Hicks keeping the payroll closer to the salary floor than the cap. They allow a lot of shots at times, which means they need great goaltending to be competitive. Lehtonen has been great, especially in the third period and overtime. He has gotten stronger as the game has gone on. In a 3-2 shootout victory over the St. Louis Blues on Saturday night, he allowed two goals in the first 3:48 but none afterward, finishing with 41 saves.
“It’s been really hard for me to play in the third periods because I’ve never been in that sort of shape,” Lehtonen said. “My playing style, if you get tired, everything collapses. Your style goes out the window and you’re just trying to survive. I think that’s been a big part this year, that I’ve been able to feel as good in the third as what I feel in the first.”
Lehtonen is 4-0 with a 2.39 goals-against average and .932 save percentage.
“He’s put the time in,” Stars coach Marc Crawford said. “I think when you look at your career, as he has, and recognize where you’ve got to make the improvements, then you go out and you do it … well, then you’re usually going to have results. He definitely is seeing those results.”
If Lehtonen continues to do so, then the focus might shift from the Stars’ past to their future. General manager Joe Nieuwendyk made two hard decisions after last season, letting go of center Mike Modano(notes) and goaltender Marty Turco(notes). A lot of fans were upset; only 11,750 showed up Saturday night at American Airlines Center. Modano was the face of the franchise. Turco was an outgoing guy. Lehtonen is neither, but he can win in his own way.
Burish said Lehtonen lives where a goaltender should, in his “own little spacey world.” Morrow said Lehtonen might throw out a zinger in the dressing room, but it might take a moment for it to sink in. “Did he really say that?” Morrow said. “He didn’t say that. Yeah, he said that.” Sneak a puck past him in practice, and he might give you a monotone line in a Finnish accent, something like, “One in a hundred’s not bad.” But more often than not, he’ll give you nothing.
“If I score on him, I celebrate in his face, trying to get him mad,” Burish said. “He just kind of looks at you with that blank stare again, like he doesn’t even care, like, ‘You’re an idiot for doing that, I’m going to stop you next time, anyways.’ And usually he stops me the next time, and it’s over with.”
Hey, you practice how you play.
“It’s a great opportunity for me to get, like, a fresh start and start everything from the zero,” Lehtonen said. “I can feel that the guys feel comfortable with me in the net, and that’s the most important thing for a goalie, I think. Just try to be solid and do your work. You don’t have to be a magic man.”