Kari Lehtonen was understandably apprehensive when he was traded to the Dallas Stars last February. He had spent his entire career with the Atlanta Thrashers, and he had made Atlanta his home in North America.
Almost a year later, as he gets ready to face his former team for the first time, Lehtonen now relishes the change.
“I didn’t want to leave at first,” Lehtonen said, “But after a while I realized it was the best thing for me, coming here.”
It’s a move that’s worked out well for Lehtonen and the Stars. The 27-year-old Finn’s stellar play has been key to the Stars’ run to the top of the Pacific Division standings this season.
“It’s a credit to Kari, I think. He’s really enjoyed it here,” said Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk. “He’s made himself a better player and I really think he’s enjoyed the support we’ve given him.”
When the Stars acquired Lehtonen he was coming off a conditioning stint in the AHL and hadn’t played in an NHL game in almost one year. After playing well for the Stars late in the season, he signed a three-year, $10.65 million extension in May and went to work.
Lehtonen, who had been slowed by injuries during his career, ramped up his offseason conditioning routine with help from the Stars and came into training camp in the best shape of his career.
It’s paid off. Lehtonen has started 33 of the Stars’ 44 games, posting an 18-10-5 record, a 2.59 goals-against average and a .916 save percentage in helping the Stars put together a 26-13-5 record. What the numbers don’t show are the timely saves and his ability to avoid the soft, untimely and deflating goal.
“He’s everything we hoped he could be. Probably a little bit more,” said Stars coach Marc Crawford. “Everybody in the league knew he was a good goalie and if he could improve his conditioning and get over the injuries, which were largely caused by a lack of conditioning, there was a chance for him to be an elite goaltender. I think he’s becoming an elite goaltender.”
That was the expectation for Lehtonen when Atlanta took him in the first round (second overall) of the 2002 NHL Entry Draft. He showed glimpses of that ability during his time in Atlanta, where he helped the team to its only playoff appearance in franchise history in 2006-07.
Now, Lehtonen will get to square off against his old team for the first time when the Stars and Thrashers meet Saturday night at American Airlines Center.
“It’s going to be special. I still have to go back there [Atlanta], but it is going to be exciting,” said Lehtonen. “It’s an important game too. I have to do the same things I always do, stop pucks and keep them out of the net.”
Lehtonen said he sees the Thrashers as similar to the Stars this season. Not many people expected them to make the playoffs, but they are right in the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff race. After tying a franchise record with six straight wins and putting together a 12-2-2 run, they’ve slipped some recently, winning only three of their last eleven games (3-6-2). But the Thrashers continue to hold onto the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
The young goaltender the Thrashers decided to go with as their new No. 1 –- Ondrej Pavelec –- has had an outstanding season, ranking second in the league in save percentage and 11th in goals-against average. As Lehtonen sees it, the deal benefitted both teams.
“It opened up a spot for Pavelec to play. It worked out both ways,” Lehtonen said. “I am very happy, and I am sure they are too.”
*Chances are the Stars won’t see Ondrej Pavelec on Saturday night. He played Friday night against Philadelphia. Heading into that game, the plan from Thrashers coach Craig Ramsay was to play Chris Mason against the Stars and Pavelec in Monday’s game against Florida.
*Jamie Langenbrunner will play with Brenden Morrow and Mike Ribeiro for Saturday’s game against the Thrashers. Langenbrunner was moved to that line during the Stars-Oilers game Tuesday. Jamie Benn, who had been playing with Ribeiro and Morrow, will now center a line with Steve Ott and Adam Burish.