Kari Lehtonen's Long and Winding Road to Elite Status

Ronald Martinez - Getty Images

Kari Lehtonen is one of the best goaltenders in the NHL. However, he didn't follow the typical path to stardom. His journey was filled with more valleys than peaks, but it was one Valley in particular that got him on track.

It is crazy to think that Kari Lehtonen is only one year away from turning 30. Drafted second overall back in 2002 by the Atlanta Thrashers, Lehtonen’s path to elite goaltender (yes, he is there now) has been far from linear. He was able to succeed as a teenager in Finland and as a youngster in Atlanta because of his incredible athletic gifts – Lehtonen is 6-4 and 215 pounds and he moves effortlessly between the pipes.

This reliance on his natural gifts led to some problems for Lehtonen, though. He neglected his work in the gym, and his diet was not where it needed to be for him to sustain his performance over 50 or 60 games per season. His body continually broke down – fatigue, injury, mental errors, you name it, and Lehtonen has faced it.

The Dallas Stars took a chance on him a few years ago (they didn’t risk much though, sending borderline prospect Ivan Vishnevskiy and a 4th round draft pick in 2010 to Atlanta), hoping that he would be able to finally live up to the immense hype typically associated with a 2nd overall draft pick.

Lehtonen’s story is well documented, and I’m not going to bore you with many details that you are likely familiar with. Instead, I decided to gather a few relevant questions pertaining to the past, present, and future for Lehtonen in Dallas, and I posed them to Justin Goldman (@TheGoalieGuild), the founder of The Goalie Guild, and an expert in the craft of stopping pucks.

Angus: What has changed with Lehtonen with regards to off-ice training and acting the part of a pro? Has it been an outside influence? Did something click from within?

Goldman: In my opinion, it was a combination of both. Every goalie matures at a different rate, and some goalies take longer to learn, understand, and embrace that "true pro" attitude than others. For Lehtonen, I think it just took him a few extra years to realize what that "true pro" attitude was all about. Thanks to both external and internal influences, Kari learned that he couldn't rely on pure skill alone. It only takes you so far, and then it takes an insane work ethic and dedication to things like nutrition and physical fitness to truly become an "elite" NHL goalie.

The combination of internally maturing and externally learning these lessons came together at the right time (when he was traded to Dallas), and he experienced an awakening of sorts. He put in the work and the effort needed to enhance his conditioning, and he strengthened his whole body. He ate better, he improved his endurance, he improved his lifestyle. He simply transformed into a "true pro" in terms of his daily approach, and it has obviously improved his entire game.

Where would you rank him if you were picking a team from scratch tomorrow compared to other goalies? Top 10? 20?

I think Kari is right around a Top-10 guy. I have to be honest though -- because I have a more intimate understanding of his game compared to some other NHL goalies, I have more confidence in what he's capable of doing. When I say he's an elite goalie, I really mean it. I can't say the same for some other goalies because I haven't had the luxury to learn the true intricacies of their game yet. So I would probably take Lehtonen between 7th and 10th overall. I think goalies like Henrik Lundqvist, Pekka Rinne, Carey Price, Jonathan Quick, Ryan Miller, and Marc-Andre Fleury are more valuable and more valuable for different reasons, but once you start to consider the next group of elite goalies -- guys like Niklas Backstrom, Jonas Hiller, Cam Ward, maybe even Roberto Luongo, Lehtonen would be near the top of that list.

Experience goes a real long way when ranking and selecting goalies -- you always have more confidence in a guy that has proven his worth in years past -- and most fans seem to unfairly (or unknowingly) devalue Lehtonen because of his injury-riddled past. But he's a totally different goalie today, and therefore I'd be choosing him higher than the general public probably would.

Can he backstop a team to the Cup (with the right parts in front of him)?

With the right parts in front of him, absolutely. He can steal games, he can make the timely save, he has elite skills, and he's a fierce competitor. Toss in the improved work ethic and durability, and you have a guy that can win a Stanley Cup. If he makes the Western Conference playoffs as a #8 seed and doesn't play more than 65-68 games, watch out.

Did his early career adversity toughen him up? Will it help him in the long run?

For sure. It is impossible for me to quantify or gauge just how much it toughened him up, or how much it helps him in the long run, but every goalie learns from past mistakes. They don't only refine their technique and their style on the ice; they work hard to refine their approach and their day-to-day routine of mentally preparing for a game.

Everything from his eating habits to his practice habits to his opponent scouting habits have improved since coming to Dallas. With that in mind, he has a very clear understanding of what didn't work in Atlanta, and what works now. When you have such a severe contrast between two approaches (old vs. new), I think it helps a goalie like Kari steer clear of past bad habits and focus even harder on improving the good habits. To me, he's still evolving -- I don't think he has truly reached his prime yet, and I think Nieuwendyk and the owner agreed when signing him to a five-year extension.

What aspects of his game does he still need to work on?

I think he can quiet his game down a little bit more. For such a reactive, flexible, and reflex-happy goalie, he still gets caught in situations where he over-reacts or over-works to make certain saves when it's not really necessary. By being a little more calm and composed in the net, he will learn to absorb more shots and let plays and pucks come to him. He's already a master at so many different areas of stopping the puck -- especially his glove hand -- so I think the focus should be centered around displaying as much patience as possible. By not over-thinking things and not trying to win the whole game with a single save, he'll realize less is a little more, and make himself a bit more economical and durable.

I also think he just needs to work on staying in the zone, staying mentally centered. It might be easy to get frustrated by a lack of scoring or defensive support at times, but he can't allow that to change his approach, or change the way he plays. I think he can be a little more active moving the puck up the ice and helping out his defensemen, too. Now more than ever, goalies need to be confident and consistent when jump-starting the transition, so maybe we'll see Kari be more active playing the puck.

How does his mindset shift with the big contract?

I have no idea obviously since that's a personal thing, but my guess is that it won't change anything. He is an elite goaltender; he won't become self-absorbed or allow the money to inflate his ego. Those were issues he had in the past. They won't manifest themselves in a manner that negatively influences his game. He's in the perfect market; Dallas has passionate fans, but the media attention is not a circus show like it might be in Toronto or Montreal or Vancouver. He can stay focused on what matters -- coming to the rink every day, doing all the things he needs to do to feel confident in his pre-game preparation, and most importantly, staying hydrated, healthy, and focused.

Anything else that Dallas fans may want to know about Lehtonen?

Just make sure people give plenty of credit to Stars goalie coach Mike Valley. It's 2012, and the casual fan or reporter still has no clue just how important a goalie coach is to a team's success. They are vital, just like a quarterback coach is to a quarterback's success. Valley is known by many in the goalie community to be one of the brightest young goaltending minds in the world. He gets it. He is progressive, and not just with the way he teaches technique, but how he motivates and inspires goalies to be their best. He knows what it takes to turn a Top-30 goalie into a Top-10 goalie without over-coaching them or changing their game. The best thing that possibly could've happened to Lehtonen was to cross paths with Valley, and you're just now starting to see the result of the great chemistry that has been created. I wouldn't be surprised if Lehtonen requested the Stars to extend Valley's contract before signing his own contract extension -- he's that valuable.

I have put together a few Lehtonen wallpapers, as well. Here they are:

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