Kari Lehtonen: Consistent, Astonishing, Spectacular...and Unappreciated

DALLAS TX - JANUARY 15: Goalie Kari Lehtonen #32 of the Dallas Stars in goal against the Atlanta Thrashers at American Airlines Center on January 15 2011 in Dallas Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

At this point, it's almost expected that great goaltending would be taken for granted in Dallas.

After all, this is the same franchise that has had Andy Moog, Eddie Belfour and Marty Turco take their spot between the pipes for the Dallas Stars; there are many teams in the NHL that could only dream of such consistency. On top of that, the Stars had become known for producing some of the top young goaltending talents in the NHL, who would go on to have steady jobs around the league.

Manny Fernandez, Arturs Irbe (drafted by Minnesota), Roman Turek, Mike Smith and Dan Ellis all got their start in the NHL with the Stars. The Stars have even had several solid veteran backups make their way through Dallas, with Ron Tugnutt and Johan Hedberg briefly providing backup duties.

Heck, let's even throw Darcy Wakaluk's name into the hat.

If there is one team that has grown accustomed to the presence of great, consistent goaltending it's the Dallas Stars. It's become a staple of the franchise, just as how the defensive schemes employed by the Stars for so long became ingrained into the franchise itself. 

It's no surprise then, that this incredible season by Kari Lehtonen is going largely unnoticed by everyone except the most hardcore of Dallas Stars fans.

The numbers are good, but not great. 

22 wins, 11 losses, 5 overtime or shootout losses. 2.57 goals-against average and a .917 save percentage. The numbers rank him 13th in the NHL among goaltenders with at least 30 starts so far this season. Many Stars fans would look at this numbers and perhaps scoff, remembering times past when Stars goaltending was at or near the top in nearly every category. Therein lies the problem.

Last season, in early February when Joe Nieuwendyk made a gutsy trade to send the franchise's top prospect to Atlanta in exchange for a troubled, out of shape and injured goaltender, the Stars knew that there was trouble brewing in net. Despite facing a possible trade scenario and almost certainly looking free agency in the face, Marty Turco had folded when the team needed him the most. 

The Stars, fighting to recover from another poor start to the season, watched Turco win just two out of eight games in January while posting a disastrous .884 save % and a 3.61 GAA in those eight games combined. As soon as Kari Lehtonen had been acquired and donned a Stars jersey in front of the media, Turco woke up and briefly gave the Stars life in February before completely collapsing following the Olympic break. 

The Stars stuck with Lehtonen and allowed Turco to walk. The Stars gave a three-year contract to an unproven goaltender and watched the franchise's best netminder become a free agent; it's easy to see why fans were hesitant to immediately embrace the Finnish goalie as the team entered the 2010-11 season.

Despite the struggles of the past few seasons, Turco had been the backbone for one of the most successful NHL franchises of the past decade. There were some bumps along the way, mainly involving the postseason and almost always involving the Detroit Red Wings, yet Turco was a steady force on the team while changes were made around him for nearly eight full seasons. He would set an NHL record for GAA in 2003 and was named to multiple All Star games throughout his career in Dallas.

While it all might have gone downhill towards the end, at least fans knew what to expect from Turco. With Kari Lehtonen, the fans and the everyday sports fanatics that follow the Stars were unsure of what they were getting. All they had heard about was his injury history, a fact that no hockey publication could ever resist mentioning starting on the day he was traded to Dallas. You can't fault fans for holding back a bit while they took stock of the new netminder; after all, he was replacing one of the most beloved players in franchise history.

Therein lies the crux of the issue, if you think about it.

Marty Turco was a suave, clean cut and charismatic guy who went to college at Michigan University. He had won an NCAA Championship while there, and then set records while playing in the AHL while waiting for his time to come in Dallas. He was an NHL star almost immediately, and his off-ice personality made him an easy marketing figure for the team to use: the good looking, outspoken, charitable and clean cut goaltender, continuing the tradition of great netminding in Dallas. 

There were detractors, of course, but Turco quickly became an instantly recognizable sports figure in the Dallas area and almost immediately his jersey became one of the most popular amongst the hometown fans. The fans would carry on the tradition of the "Eddie" chant from the late 90's, as he would lead the Stars to the Western Conference Finals in 2008. 

You go from that, to Kari Lehtonen, and it's no wonder that the Finn hasn't been welcomed with open arms. 

He's a quiet, unassuming personality off the ice and almost the complete opposite of Turco in every way. Turco was an easy player for the fans to embrace  and his ability to connect with the general audiences at games -- both on and off the ice -- helped build his popularity amongst fans over the years.

It also doesn't help that Lehtonen's style as a goaltender is decidedly less flashy than that of Turco's. Marty Turco was a fun, exciting and exhilarating goaltender to watch most of the time as he would have at least one or two acrobatic saves nearly every night. Lehtonen is much more safe; he's bigger and uses his positioning to make the saves, not his athleticism to make crazy saves to make up for bad mechanics. The fans were excited by Turco, good or bad; with Lehtonen, it's just....normal.

While the fans are still filled with Marty Turco #35 jerseys, you'd be hard pressed to find anyone that had spent the money on a Kari Lehtonen jersey at any home game. In fact, you'd most likely not find any at all. It's tough for the fans to just move on, especially when Turco is still able to play -- just for a completely different team. So fans now looked at Kari Lehtonen with a wary eye, wondering if this fragile netminder could somehow do what Turco had not the past two seasons: give the Dallas Stars a chance to win on a nightly basis.A

As I stated above, Lehtonen may not be setting the NHL on fire with his statistics on the season thus far, but he's certainly doing exactly what the Stars asked him to do when signing him to a three-year contract: he's winning the Dallas Stars games, more games than anyone ever thought would be possible this season. The Stars are on pace for the best season in years and have a legitimate shot at winning the division; I doubt there is one fan out there that honestly felt the Dallas Stars had improved enough for this scenario to present itself this deep into the season. Yet with Lehtonen in goal, we've learned that the Stars will have as many chances as they need in order to win the game.

Last season, the Dallas Stars had a penchant for allowing goals at the worst times in games. Whether it was within the first few minutes of the game, right before the end of the period or even right before the end of regulation, the Stars somehow would find a way to give the opposition any chance they might need to tie or win the game in the final minutes. For whatever reason Turco had lost the ability to make that one, timely stop that would protect his team from the mistakes they were making and give his team a chance to actually win. Easily one of the most frustrating aspects of the past couple of years, it was frustrating to see Turco declining right in front of our eyes.

Aside from a few odd and minor tweaks (along with the addition of Adam Burish) the Stars are putting almost the exact same roster on the ice that they did last season, yet the results have been completely different. Is it the sudden familiarity with Marc Crawford's system? Perhaps it's the departure of several players who helped contribute to a stressful and frustrated locker room environment. Both great reasons for the turnaround in production this season, yet I don't understand how anyone can look back at the season so far and say -- unequivocally -- that Kari Lehtonen hasn't been the number one reason the Stars have been successful so far this season.

The numbers aren't incredible, but they're also skewed by a very, very bad game in Vancouver. Scratch that loss, and you have one of the top GAA in the NHL. As of now, it's already well ahead of where the Stars were last season when goaltending and defense appeared to be optional on most nights. Lehtonen is on pace for career highs in wins, GAA and save percentage and the Stars have allowed 24 less goals overall so far this season compared to this point in 2009-10.

Not only are the numbers better than ever, but Lehtonen is performing in ways that statistics can't measure. He's making the right saves at the right time. He's putting the team on his back when they need him most and he's leading them away from the flames of any number of painful and embarrassing losses this season. How many times have the Stars started a game slow, only to have Lehtonen hold down the fort until the team caught its breath and fought back for a win? We all focus on the resolve of the team to come back and get a big win, yet the steady performance in net goes unnoticed for the most part.

Yet there are still many that have doubt. There are many who have even wondered if the Stars made the right choice with Lehtonen, especially after his bad game in Vancouver. The fans as a whole are still tentative in this relationship. There are no "Kari -- Kari -- Kari" chants ringing down at the AAC. There are no Kari Lehtonen jerseys being worn up in the stands. You don't see kids emulating Lehtonen as they start their young hockey career. 

The individual performances themselves go largely unnoticed. Lehtonen rebounded from the worst game of his career in Vancouver and put together perhaps the best 20 minutes of his season against Edmonton. Yet the postgame recogniztion of the incredible game never occured, as we instead focused on the flashy and well-known players on the team. It's all normal at this point.

To be fair, Lehtonen has only been in Dallas for just half a season and there's still a long ways to go before Lehtonen could ever dream of the legitimacy that Turco and Belfour possessed amongst the fans as a whole. I'd like to believe that if Lehtonen does in fact lead the Stars to the second round of the playoffs or beyond, then suddenly we'll start to see more Lehtonen jerseys and the crowd will certainly embrace him -- figuratively -- at every home game. Those chants will rain down, and suddenly all will be right again in Dallas.

The fans have yet another great goaltender who has lead the franchise to postseason success, while Lehtonen can finally feel at home with a franchise with fans that embrace and adore him. In the meantime, let's not take for granted just how incredible Lehtonen truly has been for the Stars so far this season. There's a long, long way to go but if the Stars have any hope of hanging on to this division lead they'll need a consistently great performance from their netminder.

Kari Lehtonen likely doesn't care all that much about having the same fan recognition as Morrow, or Brad Richards. Yet you wonder how it will feel for him, that first time, when after he's made a big save in an important game he hears the loud and thunderous roar of nearly 20,000 fans chanting his name. He'd finally feel like he belongs in Dallas -- not just with his coaches and teammates, but in this city and with the fans as well and there's no doubting the power that gives the players on the ice.

Continue playing like you have been, Kari, and the fans will certainly start to take notice. The hardcore fans already love him. Let's get the rest to start coming around.

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