Kari Lehtonen is key to Stars' plans

It wasn't that long ago that a regular-season tilt between the Detroit Red Wings and Dallas Stars featured two of the top teams in the Western Conference and a Stars team that was stingy on defense, difficult to play against and opportunistic when given a scoring chance. A 2-1 final was right in the Stars' wheelhouse.

That was a team that won a Stanley Cup, with Joe Nieuwendyk capturing the Conn Smythe Trophy (playoff MVP). It was an organization that contended with solid play at the blue line and goaltending that made all the big saves.

As the two prepare to face off Tuesday at 7 p.m. at American Airlines Center, Stars fans are starting to see signs of that type of team again, though it's a work in progress.

It's a team stressing the defensive part of the game. It's not that they don't want to score goals. They do. Nieuwendyk and coach Glen Gulutzan much prefer the 4-2 games to the 2-1 finals. But there's a belief that winning games starts inside your own blue line.

For that to even start to happen, though, Nieuwendyk had to change the most important position on the ice. And he knew it shortly after he arrived as general manager prior to the 2009-10 season, taking the reins of a Stars team that missed the playoffs for the first time since 2002. He watched as Marty Turco, the club's top goalie for nearly a decade, just wasn't the same guy that posted a goals-against average below 2.00 in consecutive seasons from 2002-2004. Two of the Stars' top young goalies ended up going elsewhere -- Dan Ellis left as a free agent and Mike Smith was traded to Tampa as part of the Brad Richards deal -- in large part because Turco was the unquestioned No. 1.

"I knew we had to fix things from the back end out," Nieuwendyk said. "The starting point is goalie."

Nieuwendyk needed to restock the goaltending position at the minor-league level and figure out who could handle the load as a replacement for Turco at the NHL level. Oh, and he needed to do it without any money. The Stars had a "for sale" sign and there wasn't much money being pumped into the organization.

Just before the Olympic break early in 2010, Nieuwendyk flew to Chicago and watched goalie Kari Lehtonen play in a few AHL games. Lehtonen, the No. 2 overall pick of the Thrashers in 2002, was rehabbing from two back surgeries and was trying to return to the NHL.

"I liked what I saw," Nieuwendyk said. "He had presence, size and a good command of the net. He wasn't in great shape at the time, but he recommitted himself."

Nieuwendyk called Thrashers GM Don Waddell and made a deal, trading defenseman prospect Ivan Vishnevskiy and a fourth-round draft pick for Lehtonen.

It was the kind of creative deal that Nieuwendyk had to make if he wanted to try to get a viable goalie. But it came with some risk. Lehtonen hadn't even played in an NHL game after the surgery, so there were questions about his health. The Stars' doctors checked everything out and felt he was good to go. Nieuwendyk, who dealt with back issues himself, knew the large strides that modern medicine had made with the back and felt that if Lehtonen kept up with the maintenance of it, he could return fully healthy.

But more than the injury, Nieuwendyk could sense Lehtonen needed a change of scenery and a new start. Once the trade went through, Lehtonen chatted with a few reporters and I remember the obvious relief for him in coming to a new team with management that was committed to him. (The Thrashers had two other goalies and felt like he was expendable.)

Lehtonen started last season on a roll, but with no trusted backup behind him he played too much and fatigue set in in the final month of the season. This season, he's 14-5-1 with a 2.36 GAA and a .924 save percentage. A groin strain sidelined him for 12 games, but in the process the Stars found him a backup. Richard Bachman, called up from the minors, performed well in Lehtonen's absence.

"It's a bit of a blessing in disguise because it's given Kari games off and our record was pretty good during that time off," Nieuwendyk said. "He'll be refreshed and he won't get the workload he had last year. There's no hesitation in putting Bachman in net to give Kari breaks."

Gulutzan is quick to point out that how good Lehtonen can be will depend greatly on the defensive group in front of him. That's still under construction.

Nieuwendyk traded for Alex Goligoski, and that's certainly helped. But overall, the defensive corps is still searching for consistency. They were not good against Columbus, and Lehtonen kept the Stars in that game with some solid saves late in the second period. But they were great against Boston, forcing Lehtonen to make just 18 saves in a 4-2 win.

Still, when the game is close late, Lehtonen has the confidence to make big saves and the Stars have the confidence that he'll get the job done.

"A good goaltender can clean up a lot of messes," Nieuwendyk said. "He's been what we expected. He's come in and worked hard. He's in better shape now. You look at him and he's different than he was when he got here.

"I think there's room to grow. His mindset now is to show that he's not just a good goalie, but can be one of the elite goalies."

And those goalies get it done in the biggest games against the toughest opponents. Lehtonen gets another chance Tuesday night.

Richard Durrett covers the Stars for ESPNDallas.com.