Perseverance helps Kari Lehtonen reach new heights

DALLAS -- Three years ago, Kari Lehtonen was a guy who wasn’t living up to the lofty expectations that come with being the No. 2 overall pick in the NHL Entry Draft. He wasn’t quite a bust yet, but he was close.

But the 28-year-old goaltender has turned things around. He persevered, getting his career back on track with the Dallas Stars and putting them in a position to possibly land their first playoff appearance since 2008.

It’s proof that hard work and dedication to the craft can pay dividends and that’s why Lehtonen is this year’s Dallas Stars nominee for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, which is awarded annually to the National Hockey League player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to ice hockey.

“When I came here I started from the bottom and we’ve been working hard,” said Lehtonen, who was selected as the Stars’ Masterton nominee by the Dallas Chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association. “The first thing was to get healthy and start feeling better, and then work on stuff on the ice and trying to get better as a goalie. I don’t think getting a couple years older hurts either. You get smarter. It’s been a long road, but right now everything feels good. It’s exciting times with this team and it’s lots of fun.”

It wasn’t all fun and exciting times early in the Lehtonen’s NHL career. Atlanta selected Lehtonen with the 2nd overall pick in 2002, but he never lived up to expectations. There were glimpses, but no consistency. Injuries slowed down Lehtonen. There were groin issues and back issues. He missed almost the entire 2009-10 season due to two back surgeries.

But 2010 turned out to be a key year for Lehtonen. Atlanta was ready to move forward without him and the Dallas Stars were looking to move forward from Marty Turco. Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk had played against Lehtonen when he was with Florida, and was impressed with the big Finnish netminder. So Nieuwendyk shipped defense prospect Ivan Vishnevskiy and a fourth-round pick to Atlanta for Lehtonen just prior to the 2010 trade deadline.

“Even two years ago I was too dumb to realize that it was really close, that I wouldn’t get another shot and wouldn’t have a chance to play in this league anymore,” Lehtonen said. “Every day I am grateful for these guys and Joe. I guess it helped when I stopped him a couple times when we played against each other. I am hopeful that we have many years to go and have success here, that’s what we are trying to do.”

The move to Dallas was a new beginning for Lehtonen and he took advantage of it. He made a commitment to get himself into better condition, something that hadn’t been a top priority earlier in his career.

“When you get hurt a lot you start questioning what you are doing,” Lehtonen said. “I think the hardest thing for me was I was really talented when I was a kid and I didn’t really have to push myself to be able to play with the teams I was with, and at the level I was playing at. When I got to the NHL it was a huge wakeup call and I really have to work hard if I am going to even a chance to compete and play well here. It just took me a while to figure that out. Everything was so easy when I was younger.”

Thanks to that commitment to conditioning, Lehtonen is down 20 pounds from the 230 he weighed a few years ago.

“Now I am under 210 and I feel a little quicker” said Lehtonen. “I am trying to get stronger and faster. I think we’re on a good path. We’re doing the right things.”

And those right things are paying off. Last season he played in a career-high 69 games and tied his career-high for wins with 34. This season he’s on pace for a career year with a 31-17-4 record, 2.25 goals against average and .925 save percentage.

“I think he’s matured,” said Stars coach Glen Gulutzan. “He just shows all the characteristics of a really good pro. He’s here early, he’s working on his game, his sticks or he’s stretching or working out. He’s always on the ice early. He’s taken on all those elements of a pro.”

And Lehtonen isn’t resting on the strides he’s made the past couple seasons. He’s striving for more, and to live up to those lofty expectations that were placed on him more than a decade ago when he was selected 2nd overall in the draft.

“I’d like to get to that top ten elite goalies group. I think I am pushing towards that, getting closer,” Lehtonen said. “I just have to keep going, believing I can be one of those guys and be the backbone of the team, play a lot and play well.”