Stars hitch wagon to Kari Lehtonen

When the book is written on the Joe Nieuwendyk era, it will be defined by Kari Lehtonen's performance in a leading role.

If Lehtonen continues to flash the ability that led Atlanta to select him No. 2 overall in the 2002 NHL draft and avoid the injuries and inconsistency that led him to become a bust with the Thrashers, the Dallas Stars have a chance to make the playoffs.

The odds say the Stars won't make the playoffs for the third consecutive season, but that's better than having no chance at all.

Frankly, the fact the Stars have any chance at the playoffs is a testament to the work Nieuwendyk has done as he enters his third season as GM. It's virtually impossible to turn around a bankrupt team with no owner.

And he's trying to get it done after losing Brad Richards, one of the game's dynamic offensive players, to free agency.

Good luck.

Acquisitions such as Lehtonen will define Nieuwendyk's early tenure because it's the kind of low-risk, high-reward move that a broke team has to make -- just like the acquisition of Sheldon Souray.

With Lehtonen, who is 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds with quick legs, Nieuwendyk took a chance on a talented player who hadn't met expectations in hopes that a change of scenery would allow him to maximize his skills.

Think Texas Rangers catcher Mike Napoli, who began the season as a role player and has made himself part of the team's core.

"I was a very talented player when I got drafted and I had always gotten by on that talent," Lehtonen said. "That's not enough to get through an 82-game NHL season.

"When you're taken that high, everyone treats you differently, and then if you don't meet expectations they start to turn their back on you a little bit. It's a little hard to play that way. I had to grow up and learn that if you don't do your job there's someone waiting to take it."

Once Lehtonen arrived, Nieuwendyk pulled him aside and told the goalie that he was going to give him an opportunity to be an elite player.

That's because Nieuwendyk knew Marty Turco, the Stars' long-time goalie, wasn't going to return after the 2009 season. Expectations would be low, and Nieuwendyk knew he could give Lehtonen an opportunity to prove himself -- and he did.

Lehtonen had a 34-24-11 record in a career-high 69 games, while recording a 2.55 GAA average (19th among starters) and a .914 save percentage (24th among starters).

Nieuwendyk rewarded him with a three-year deal worth $10.65 million.

"Every contract I've had has been one or two years," Lehtonen said. "Now, I have a three-year deal. They showed me that I'm going to be the guy.

"That's pretty nice, especially when you go through a rough patch during the year. It's just one less thing to worry about, which is nice."

Lehtonen gives much of the credit for his success last season to goalie coach Mike Valley for teaching him how to stay focused through the emotional highs and lows of the season.

"He's helped me technically and mentally," Lehtonen said. "I'm pretty hard on myself and sometimes during practice, if things don't go [well], I get frustrated and it carries into the game.

"He's taught me how to handle that better because he always seems to have the right words. He's played the position, so he knows what it's like."

The Stars missed the playoffs by one point last season.

It didn't help that coach Marc Crawford lost confidence in backup goalie Andrew Raycroft, who lost his last six starts and played in just one game after Feb. 19. Crawford turned to Lehtonen virtually every night.

Lehtonen wore down, and his performance slipped. New coach Glen Gulutzen has insisted he'll play Raycroft regularly, which should help Lehtonen.

So should an improved defense.

The Stars traded for puck-moving defenseman Alex Goligoski, who totaled 15 points in 22 games. They signed Adam Pardy and Souray in the offseason. Add those players to a core of Trevor Daley, Stephane Robidas, Nicklas Grossman and Mark Fistric, and the Stars should be much better from top to bottom than they were last year.

But they need Lehtonen to be better and more dependable than he was last season.

He's capable. Nieuwendyk is betting on it.

Jean-Jacques Taylor is a columnist for ESPNDallas.com.