Lehtonen's growth key to Stars' success

Kari Lehtonen stopped Boston's final three shootout attempts to seal Dallas' win this week. Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY Sports

One of the first conversations between Lindy Ruff and Dallas Stars goalie coach Mike Valley centered around Kari Lehtonen, a goalie with whom Ruff was still familiarizing himself.

"How's his puck handling?" Ruff asked Valley.

"Average," Valley answered.

"That's the thing I want you to focus on," Ruff said.

Lehtonen has always had skill and athleticism, but like many goalies raised on the big ice in Europe, handling the puck wasn't a priority for him in his early development. And throughout his career, he's addressed other areas of need first.

New Stars GM Jim Nill remembers his first impression of Lehtonen when he joined the Stars. He'd been scouting Lehtonen since the nemtinder was 15 years old in Finland so he knew the skill set. He was still impressed with what he saw on the ice.

"I am amazed at his preparation and focus," Nill said on Wednesday. "I've come before practice and see him and I kind of want to go talk to him but look and he's in his preparation mode. You see him in the game and it's the same thing."

Intense preparation is an element to Lehtonen's game he's added as he's matured from the young gifted draft pick who couldn't stay on the ice because of conditioning shortcomings, to a starting goalie in Dallas who appears to realize just how desperately he's needed on the ice at all times.

With that squared away, the focus has shifted to puck-handling, and there are early signs this season that it could pay off for Lehtonen and the Stars. In stressing just how important that part of Lehtonen's game could be, Nill gave his starting goalie a very honest assessment of where the team is at right now.

"I said, 'Kari, to help your defense out -- we're not a big, strong defense -- if you can start managing the puck, we're out of our zone,'" Nill said.

Valley and Lehtonen hit the ice, working on drills where Lehtonen is pressured, requiring him to keep his head up and actually look to where his pass is headed rather than just guess on the destination.

He's learning to read the forecheck and make better decisions. Ultimately, it comes down to making the right decision, and his decision-making is improving. He said the more consistent structure of the team around him has also helped him build trust, so that he knows exactly where defensemen are going to be when he has the puck. Ruff said improved communication from the defense will help continue the growth in this area of Dallas' game.

Nobody in Dallas is going to mistake him for former Stars goalies -- and noted puck-handlers -- Marty Turco or Mike Smith but he doesn't need to be.

"He's a guy who keeps it simple. He's not going to throw out any saucer passes," Valley said. "We're not trying to make him that. We're trying to make him effective."

Lehtonen concedes that none of this comes naturally, but was pleased to hear that people think that part of his game has improved. It's not dramatic, but Lehtonen, who is as honest in self-assessment as any player in the game, has seen the growth.

"I feel like I'm getting better and trusting myself a little more," he said. "Maybe two out of three games go really well now instead of every other game it used to be."

Statistically, Lehtonen has quietly produced one of the better starts among goalies in the league. He's 6-2-2 with a 1.93 goals against average and .937 save percentage. Among goalies with at least 10 starts, only Josh Harding and Tuukka Rask have better save percentages so far this season.

There may be better goalies in the NHL, but there's not one who is single-handedly more important to his team's success than Lehtonen. In his "Observations" column in the Dallas Morning News, Stars beat writer Mike Heika has called Lehtonen everything from a one-horse open sleigh to "Flex Seal," for his ability to cover up holes in the Stars defense.

This isn't meant as an indictment on Dan Ellis, a veteran reliable backup, but the Stars' playoff hopes this season hinge completely on Lehtonen's continued health, development and performance.

The gap in save percentage from starter to backup in Dallas is dramatic from Lehtonen's .937 to Ellis' .895. In Boston, the dropoff from Rask (.941) to Chad Johnson (.900) is comparable. As is the one in Chicago from Corey Crawford (.921) to Nikolai Khabibulin (.818).

But the teams around Rask and Crawford are so good that they would find ways to win if either player was injured or underperformed for any length of time. In Dallas, the expectations of this team rest of the shoulders of the 6-foot-4 Lehtonen, at least for now.

"Every team has to have goaltending but we're a young team," Nill said. "We're a team trying to find its identity. He's given us the ability to find that."

When Lehtonen was injured against the Jets in early October, the new regime got a taste of just how invaluable Lehtonen is to this group. With Lehtonen out, the Stars went 1-4, allowing an average of 4.4 goals per game in that stretch. The Stars allowed an average of 35.6 shots per game during Lehtonen's absence, suggesting that perhaps they play with a little more confidence when he's in there.

Lehtonen, acquired in a lopsided deal that sent Ivan Vishnevskiy and a fourth-round pick to Atlanta, may be the best gift the previous regime left for Nill and Ruff. He's locked in at an annual cap hit of $5.9 million through 2017-18, which is more term than you want at goalie, but the tradeoff is a cap hit that may end up being a value as the going rate of a starting goalie increases. He already makes less than new deals signed by Rask ($7 million per) and Crawford ($6 million) and will be well south of what Henrik Lundqvist gets.

Still just 29, the maturation continues for Lehtonen. He's working to round out his game, not relying only on his athleticism in the crease. He's also compiled the experience that comes with a decade in the NHL, experience that leaves him unimpressed with his strong start.

Asked about his success so far this season, he pointed out that he's done this before early on in a season. A high save percentage in October means nothing if there's not a playoff berth in the spring.

His lockout-shortened save percentage last season in January (.926) and February (.929) was considerably higher than down the stretch in March and April (.910 in both).

In 2011-12, his October save percentage was .947, but then it nosedived to .903 in November.

If the Stars want to stay in the playoff race in the competitive West, a full-season of consistency needs to be the biggest addition to Lehtonen's game.

"It's just trying to maintain the high level," Lehtonen said. "That's a hard thing to do."