The Atlanta Thrashers had high expectations for Kari Lehtonen when they drafted him second overall in 2002. But by the time the dysfunctional franchise gave up on him seven years later, all they had to show for it were Ivan Vishnevskiy, a brief playoff nightmare and a whole lot of man-games lost to injury.
That injury-prone, unreliable starter label has been a tough reputation to escape post-Atlanta, especially playing in another dormant southern market like Dallas has been. With little exposure and no playoff appearances with the Stars Lehtonen is an afterthought. All the while he’s been posting better numbers and playing in more games than he ever did with the Thrashers and became a rock for Dallas, earning a five-year extension on a $5.9 million cap hit.
Lehtonen hasn’t been special, but if all you can ask of your goalie is for him to be consistent from year to year and to not surprise you with meltdowns or significant periods of missed time, then Lehtonen has given the Stars all they can ask for. He won’t ever be a 70-start netminder or a Vezina winner, but he has been a good support player for GM Jim Nill’s build up.
For the past three seasons, Lehtonen has been in the top half of NHL starters for 5-on-5 save percentage and, behind a Dallas defense that finally improved, this season he cracked the top 10 for the first time.
But no matter his regular season numbers for also-ran teams, real movement on Lehtonen’s NHL reputation won’t be made until he wins in the playoffs. He’s been a rock for Dallas through a few rough years, but can he also get it done when times are good and filled with pressure? That’s the next step in his recovery.
“I’ve gotten pretty good at not looking back at all,” (Lehtonen) said. “The past is too far away, so I don’t want to carry that or look back on that. To me, I have worked all year for this moment, and I think I’m ready.”
And yet he does appreciate the maturing he’s done. He was, after all, the second overall pick in the 2002 draft. So when the Thrashers traded him to Dallas for defenseman Ivan Vishnevskiy and a fourth-round draft pick in 2010, it was clear Atlanta had given up on him. Lehtonen said he used that motivation to drop 20 pounds, get himself in better shape and start to understand the position of goaltending.
“One of the things I love about Kari is he is a real battler,” Stars general manager Jim Nill said. “People tell him he’s injury-prone or out of shape, and he proves them wrong. People say he can’t get us to the playoffs, and he proves them wrong. He lets his actions speak for him.”
In Atlanta, Lehtonen’s one year of playoff experience was horrible. He lost Game 1 to the Rangers, was replaced with Johan Hedberg in Game 2 and returned in Game 3, only to allow seven goals. The Thrashers were swept that year…and pretty much never heard from again.
And while Lehtonen got his chance to be heard again, he also risks reinforcing longstanding opinions that were already against him. A poor start for Lehtonen in Game 1 and poor finish in Game 2 resulted in losses for Dallas even though, for the most part, they had been the better team. Lehtonen can’t be losing road games for the Stars.
Then in Game 3, the series story was flipped on its head. Anaheim was clearly the better team, but Lehtonen stepped up for his first career playoff win and shutout in a 37-save effort that saved Dallas’ season.
So which Lehtonen will show up in Game 4? In some ways, for a player with so little playoff history, it’s a career-defining game.
If he stands in the way of another Dallas win and then loses this series, Lehtonen’s post-Atlanta resurgence will continue to be overlooked and understated. But if he can sustain his Game 3 form and pull off a comeback series win against Anaheim, old reputations can begin to take new form. Lehtonen can start being seen as a top 15 NHL starter reliable enough to build a playoff team in front of and win a series with.
Unless he gets injured again…