Kari Lehtonen Film Review: A Lot Of Good, Some Really Bad

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--Bumped-- We'll have more on the Dallas Stars ownership situation tomorrow.

When the Dallas Stars traded for Kari Lehtonen last week, there's a good chance that Stars fans were familiar with the name and his story, but perhaps not too familiar with his actual game. Lehtonen has played in the Eastern Conference his entire, short career and Stars fans have not had much exposure to the young man who is supposedly our goaltender of the future. So Defending Big D set out to break down the play of this promising netminder, whom most claim to have world class talent and the potential to reach elite status in the NHL.

Before I get into our film review, a quick profile on Kari Lehtonen.

Born in Helsinki, Finland in 1983 he started his professional career playing for Jokerit of the SM-Iiiga, the top pro league in Finland. It's a tough league and has become known for producing top talent worldwide. In his first two full seasons with Jokerit, 2001-2003, he posted a 1.88 goals-against average with nine shutouts in 68 games. Following his first full pro season, he was drafted 2nd overall by the Atlanta Thrashers and made the transition to North America for the 2003-04 season.

His first foray into North American hockey with the Chicago Wolves in AHL was a resounding success. He went 20-14-2 with a 2.41 GAA and an impressive .926 save percentage. He also won all four NHL games he appeared in, allowing just five goals with one shutout. He would spend the entire 2004-05 season during the NHL lockout with Chicago, winning 38 games and posting a 2.27 GAA with a .929 save percentage. His high level of success in the AHL led the Thrashers to permanently call him up for the 2005 season, yet he seriously injured his groin in the first game of the season and would appear in just 38 games that year.

He would lead them to the playoffs for the first time in franchise history in 2007 with a 34-24-9 record, and a .912 save percentage. He would famously fall apart in the first round against the New York Rangers, allowing 11 goals in two games before being benched.

He's played in just 94 games since the start of the 2007 season. Many are concerned about his injury history, and it appears that his injuries troubles started with several violent collisions in 2005 and he's struggled ankle and groin injuries ever since. He also was in a very violent collision at the end of the 2009 season, against the New York Rangers and has played in just one NHL game since.

This past summer, Lehtonen underwent a laminotomy, a procedure that removes a part of the bony covering of a nerve root along the spine. This is performed in order to relieve severe back pain resulting from a intervertebral disc rupture. Judging from the responses of people who have had this surgery, it's a significant recovery period but the pain that wracked the back, arms, legs and neck from the injury is completely gone. According to Lehtonen, and the Dallas Stars doctors, he has completely recovered and is now pain free for the first time in a long time; now it's just a matter of getting back out on the ice and playing hockey.

Now, on to the film review. I must warn you, however. This is a long one.

While going back and watching a number of Kari Lehtonen games, it's easy to see why he is generally considered to have so much potential. And it's not just potential; he has played at a very high level in the NHL over a five-year period and he is just 26 years old. He's just now reaching what many consider the prime of a goaltender's career, and the Stars could have nabbed a top-5 goaltender to be with the team for next five to seven years.

The first thing that jumps out is that Lehtonen is a technician in net. Like most goaltenders that come from Finland, he is very calculating and direct with his mechanics and plays a nearly flawless positional game. He's also a very, very large goaltender; he's listed at 6-4, 215 pounds but looks much bigger than that in net.

He'll also play far, far out on top of his crease and really challenge shooters. He has impressive flexibility for a player of his size and he'll cover a lot of the net down low, a lot, when he's spread out across the crease. He's also one of the best goaltenders I've seen in the way he is able to stay square to shooters as he moves for position. He knows that his size and positioning are his biggest advantage and he works hard to maintain that advantage on shooters. And there is zero doubt that he is a butterfly goaltender; perhaps the most traditional butterfly in the NHL right now. He goes down often, and he stays in that wide stance, low to the ice as much as possible. His size allows him to get away with it, and I rarely saw him beat high when he was challenging.

Where it gets concerning is his mobility across the crease, and his propensity to overreact to plays that cross in front of him. His best trait is his aggressiveness as he challenges shooters, and he get's in trouble when he starts backing down into his crease. He also appears to be a goaltender who is driven by his confidence. When he's on top of his game he is nearly unstoppable, but when he gets rocked once he starts to fold. That's why you'll see him, throughout his career, allow 1 and 2 goals for a week and then allow 6 and 7 two games in a row.

Now, onto the actual film review. I chose three games from March of 2009 to look at, as these were his latest games in the NHL. He had really started to put together a big couple of months at the end of the season and was looking strong. But the final four games were very disappointing.

This is very lengthy, as I wanted to cover many aspects of Lehtonen's game. As always, click on the thumbnails for a larger picture.

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Above: Here is a good look at his positioning in the butterfly on a shot from the circle to his right. He doesn't give much room, and he easily directs the puck away from the pressure in front. Some say his rebound control is suspect; I'd give it a 'B' overall.

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Above: Ok Stars fans, get ready for a big change. Kari Lehtonen is about 22% of the puck handler that Marty Turco is. He does not handle the puck very often, and when he does there's a 50-50 chance he'll turn it over. Here, he takes the puck behind the net and blindly shoots it back up the boards.

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Above & below: He gives the puck cleanly to an Avalanche player along the boards, resulting in a turnover and a prime scoring chance. The puck is shot back behind the boards, where it's thrown immediately out front. Below, you can see his butterfly positioning as the puck is shot from very close, as he keeps his upper body high and square and his pads flared out along the goal line. It was a relatively easy stop.

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Above: You can see here, once again, his butterfly technique as he challenges a shot from the high slot, coming out high in crease to take away shooting angles.

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Above: In this sequence, you can see Lehtonen's ability to stay square as he moves across his crease. He starts off moving to his right, but the puck comes into the middle.

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Above: The puck is bouncing around in front, and Lehtonen stays square, pads low to the ice as moves with the puck.

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Above: He's low to the ice, spread wide and taking away any possible shooting angles as the puck comes near. Notice how high in the crease he is, despite the traffic in front.

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Above: This was perhaps his best game in the 2009 season, as he stopped 50 shots against Washington. Here, once again, you can see his positioning high in the crease as he stops an Alex Ovechkin shot.

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Above: His strength, and positioning down low, as he stops Ovechkin in tight....

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Above: Not once...but three times. He stretches, shows great flexibility as he keep Ovechkin out of the net.

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Above: Here, once again, you can see the traditional butterfly on display.

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Above: High in his crease, square to the shooter as the puck moves across the high slot. Another easy save off a big shot from the point.

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Above: Here's a great sequence. The Atlanta defense allows a forward to get behind them and down low. The shooter wants to take advantage of Lehtonen's supposed lack of mobility (or any goaltender's really) and takes the puck across the crease.

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Above: You can see Lehtonen, once again, maintaining himself square to the shooter as he moves across.

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Above: Lehtonen then starts the traditional pad stack as the shooter starts running out of room and gears up for a quick shot.

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Above: It's amazing how quickly such a large goaltender was able to move across and stack his pads. Here, the puck bouncing away...

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Above: Another angle of the same play. You can see Lehtonen remaining as square as possible as long as he can.

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As the shooter cocks to fire the puck, Lehtonen challenges him and starts to stack his pads.

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Above: It's a gamble, but he quickly took away as much shooting angle as he possible could on a tough play.

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Above: Now for some bad. This shows what happens when Lehtonen doesn't maintain his positioning and backs down. Here, Alex Tanguay is all alone in the crease as the pass comes in from the left of Lehtonen.

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Above: Lehtonen whiffs on a poke check, is back in his crease and the puck is tipped over his glove. Lehtonen does not seem to have a fast glove hand, by the way.

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Above: Another angle of the same play. You can see the bad positioning here.

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Above: Here's a great play, closely followed by a bad one. Lehtonen's perfect butterfly takes away any angle for a shot very low, as the shooter is once again all alone in the crease.

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Above: Pefect butterfly. The shot goes off his pads and off to his left. The issue here is that Lehtonen over compensates to his left and the puck ends up coming back across the crease.

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Above: Different angle. He's started moving to his left, but the puck is now moving back to his right. Tough for any goaltender to change position like that, but here he struggles to quickly react from his initial push. This is something I saw a number of times watching him play and something we'll see a bit later.

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Above: The end result. He flails to his right as the puck is shot into an open net.

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Above: Now here is a very interesting and impressive sequence. The puck starts off behind the net and is passed out front to the top of the slot. Notice how wide and tall Lehtonen is along the crease.

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Above. The puck goes out top, and Lehtonen starts to react. Now if this had been a one-timer, there might have been an issue but he's given an extra split second. The shooter receives the puck and winds up for a snap-shot.

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Above: Immediately, Lehtonen is square and far out on top of his crease, challenging the shot. A couple of defenders block the puck, which goes off to Lehtonen's right.

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Above: You can see Lehtonen start to react to the puck moving right, as it's picked up and shot quickly.

 

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Above: Lehtonen makes the save, but look at how far out from his crease he is. He can't handle the rebound, and the puck ricochet's to his left.

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Above: The puck is far to his left, as Lehtonen is extremely out of position.

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Above & below: He is back in 'position' before the shot is made and makes the save. Ha! How crazy would that sequence be for Stars fans?

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Above: Time for some bad again, once again a result of poor positioning. Lehtonen does not have the reflexes to make up for poor positioning and here we see what happens if he's caught low in his crease. It's also important to note that he had already allowed 4 goals in this game and definitely did not look as confident as I'd seen him just a week before against Washington.

Here, the puck is along the boards and is going to be passed right in front for a one timer. It's tough to see his positioning here, but Lehtonen is not challenging like he normally does.

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Above: The shot is being made, and instead of skating out to challenge the shot Lehtonen stays still and waits for it. It's reactive, and it's dangerous when facing NHL shooters.

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Above: He goes wide as the shot comes in, and does not have the reflexes to adjust to the low shot.

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Above: The puck is scored five-hole, and you can see how low in his crease Lehtonen is. There isn't an opposing player within 15 feet of the crease, so there was no reason for him to be that low. This was a trend with Lehtonen, when he had allowed a number of goals already.

When it rains, it pours.

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Above: In this final sequence, we can see the issues that Lehtonen has with overcompensating with his movements across the crease. This goal is the 6th he allowed in the game.

Here, the shot comes in from the right point. Notice Lehtonen is back out on top of his crease.

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Above: The shot was meant to be a pass to the left side of the crease (a shass), but it is blocked. The problem is that Lehtonen had already started moving to his left.

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Above: Different angle. The puck is to Lehtonen's right, and here he is working hard to recover and get back to his right. The puck never came close to reaching the middle of the slot on the original pass.

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Above: He overcompensates to his right, going down low in anticipation of a shot. Yet the puck is passed back across the crease, as he is moving and going down to his butterfly.

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Above: At this point, he had enough time to push off and square up to the shooter, yet opts instead to slide back to his left and try and stack his pads.

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Above: The shot is actually flubbed, and flutters over a sprawled Lehtonen and into the net. His strengths are when he's on his skates or on his knees, squared up and using his size and mechanics. A Dominik Hasek, he is not.

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So what have we learned? I finished on a sour note with that final sequence, but I was highly encouraged by what I saw overall. One thing is for certain, this is a completely different goaltender and netminding approach than what we've been used to with Marty Turco. I rarely saw a 'snow angel' in the crease, and Lehtonen showed an incredible ability to stay square, high in his crease and challenge the shooters. I rarely saw him get beat up high, and most goals scored were because of poor positioning.

It's also important to note that Lehtonen played behind an atrocious Atlanta defense. He routinely faced 30-40 shots, yet maintains a solid .912 save percentage in the NHL. Not to say that the Dallas defense is much better, but this is not a goaltender whose numbers have been inflated by the defensive prowess in front of him.

What are your thoughts?

Thank you to Fire Wagon Hockey for their assistance in this project.

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