There was a time when depending on Kari Lehtonen to be in your lineup on a regular basis was about as reliable as Patrick Kaleta not head-butting a guy.
That changed when Lehtonen was dealt to the Dallas Stars in the middle of the 2009-10 season. The move was looked at as a big risk by GM Joe Nieuwendyk, especially since a 4th-round pick and touted prospect Ivan Vishnevskiy went the other way.
But what was the knock on Lehtonen — his poor conditioning — changed when he re-dedicated himself to training and put up career bests last year in goals-against average (2.55), save-percentage (.914) and matched a career-high in wins with 34. A player who should have had "oft-injured" placed in front of his name early in his career was one of the reasons why Dallas' playoff hopes went until the final day of the 2010-11 season.
It's no surprise then that Lehtonen — the NHL's Second Star for the month of October -- is the driving force behind Dallas' success through 11 games this season that has them sitting third in the Western Conference at 16 points.
Lehtonen (8-1-0, 1.75, .941) may be the backbone, but it's the Stars' balanced scoring that's helped in a major way. Of the NHL's top 36 scorers, none come from Dallas. Their leading scorer, Jamie Benn, has 10 points and Loui Eriksson is tops on the team with six goals. Fourteen different Stars have points and they've gotten goals from 12 of them.
While Dallas is by no means an offensive juggernaut, they've cashed in on their opportunities helping them to their fourth-best start since they moved to Dallas.
As new Stars head coach Glen Gulutzan told ESPN Dallas' Mark Stepnanski earlier this week being outplayed hasn't resulted on losses:
"I think it's pretty successful. I certainly like our last six games better than our first five. That's a positive," Gulutzan said. "You're going to get into these games where you get outshot. You look at any team, any of the good teams, sometimes they get outshot or maybe outchanced but they find a way to win."
And the Stars have gotten out-shot quite a bit. As of Friday, they have the third-worst shots for/against differential at minus-6, averaging 32.6 shots allowed per game. (Defending Big D has a great breakdown of this) But with Lehtonen's strong play, that's not an issue for Gulutzan to worry about just yet.
Even as Brad Richards departed over the summer, there was the expectation from some (raises hand) that the Stars would take a hit. But so far that hasn't been the case and the move to sign Sheldon Souray (3 goals, 8 points) is so far a winner, while Benn and Eriksson continue to blossom into superstars.
Nieuwendyk took a risk on Lehtonen; a risk on watching Richards leave over the summer; a risk on Souray and a risk on an unknown Gulutzan and it's all worked. As the calendar hit November just a few days ago, how much longer will Nieuwendyk's magic continue to pay off for the Stars?
Photo credit: AP