Defending Big D recently sat down with the Dallas Stars goalie to discuss his preparations for the short season coming up, as well as a very interesting change he's made for this season.
The first true blockbuster move by general manager Joe Nieuwendyk came in early 2010, when he sent defensive prospect Ivan Vishnevskiy to the Atlanta Thrashers in return for goaltender Kari Lehtonen -- who, at the time, had played in just four games total that season. Lehtonen was attempting to rehab from major back surgery and there was uncertainty that he'd ever regain the form that led to the Finnish netminder being selected No. 2 overall in the draft.
After just 12 games that season, the Stars felt they had seen enough. Lehtonen became the full-time starter for the Stars the very next season and he hasn't looked back -- steadily rising up the ranks among the top goaltenders in the NHL and earning a five-year contract extension in September.
After 32 wins in 59 games last season, as well as a career-best 2.33 goals-against average and .922 save percentage, the Dallas Stars will be relying even more on Kari Lehtonen in this lockout-shortened, 48-game season. The Stars are certainly in a transition year on the ice and could have as many as three rookie defenseman on the NHL roster at some point this season -- depending on injuries -- and Lehtonen will be counted upon to once again put this team on his back and, hopefully, carry them to the postseason for the first time in nearly five years.
Defending Big D had the chance to sit down and talk with Lehtonen prior to the start of training camp, and almost immediately the topic of preparing for a short season in the midst of a lockout came up. Lehtonen stayed in Dallas over the course of the work stoppage and while the time to let his body recover and continue to get in better shape helped, Lehtonen stated that attempting to be ready to go without knowing when the lockout would end was certainly not easy.
"It was a weird situation," said Lehtonen. "You go in waves with your preparation. You don't know when it's going to start. Some weeks it feels great, but the season doesn't start, and you basically have to stay in training camp mode for months. Hopefully we have some players who are ready to play, but it's the same for everybody really.
"It's going to be a wild, wild start and I'm excited about that."
The need for a fast and successful start in such a season has been discussed non-stop the past few weeks and for goaltenders like Lehtonen -- the jump straight into the season will not be the easiest transition. We had seen in the past where Lehtonen pushes for as much playing time in the preseason as possible and that desire for preparation is certainly there just as much as it ever was.
Considering that Lehtonen didn't play in any actual games during the lockout, the transition to the regular season won't exactly be easy.
"It's hard, you know, because you can't go on the ice with the goalie coach," Lehtonen said about training during the lockout. "We try to simulate the different things we'll see during games, but it's tough. That's why I would have liked to have seen maybe one or two preseason games thrown in there, so you can sort of test how things go."
Lehtonen, who has typically gotten off to some very strong starts the past two seasons with the Stars, will have to work his magic once more with each game being nearly twice as important when compared to a full season.
"Every year, you need to learn to play games again," said Lehtonen, smiling. "Now, we just have to jump in there and learn it when there's always two points on the line."
One issue that was discussed when the lockout ended was how players across the league, especially those that had not played hockey for nearly eight months, would be able to jump right back into the routine of everyday life in the NHL. Goaltenders in particular are known to have extremely detailed routines that they rely on to maintain consistency from game to game throughout the season, and it had been posited that some could struggle with the sudden start to the season.
Lehtonen, however, isn't worried.
"I don't think it's going to be hard," said Lehtonen, once again smiling. "When there's a game day, things just kind of fall into place. You're like a robot, you know? You eat this food, you go and take a nap, for however long you used to do."
Lehtonen brought up his already-extensive playing career as the main reason for the need to not worry about a snag in his routine.
"You go to the rink at the same time, it just comes back naturally I think. I've been playing for more than 20 years now, so you just know what you have to do and what you need to do to get ready for the game."
It's clear that Lehtonen has certainly found the right way to prepare himself for the ice, as he's completely turned his career around since coming to Dallas. While Lehtonen has still had the occasional injury, there's no doubt that he's now in better shape than at any other point in his career and he's continued to improve on the ice in each of the past two years with the Stars.
Lehtonen says that, rather than focusing on any one thing in particular, his focus has mostly been on the mental side of goaltending.
"The past two or three years I've just been trying to be better at everything, you know? I think the main thing for a goalie would be to learn to have a strong head, to not get down when you let an easy goal get by," said Lehtonen.
After a pause, he continued.
"You just have to move on. That's something I'd like to be better at and not worry about what happened and only about what I can control moving forward."
Some quick goaltender geek out stuff...
Lehtonen's pads and masks have always garnered special attention, especially considering his infamous Chuck Norris mask created by DaveArt.com. One of the first things I noticed when Lehtonen stepped on the ice this past weekend, however, was that he was using brand new pads from CCM, rather than the Vaughn's he's worn for nearly his entire pro career.
Stars fans will get the chance to see the pads for the first time tonight at the Game On! Ice Breaker, or on Saturday against Phoenix, but the pads certainly have the striking aesthetics that Lehtonen has been known for. He seemed a bit surprised when asked about the change to the new pads, but being a goaltender myself it was a great chance to talk a little shop with one of the best in the world.
"They're a new brand," said Lehtonen of the new CCMs. "I wore the same collection of pads for ten years, pretty much. I've tried different stuff, every once in a while, but I've always gone back to the old ones. I tried some more this summer, though, and just fell in love with the new pads."
I certainly recognized the tone in his voice, as he talked fondly of the pads he'd always used before. It's clear, however, that he's excited about the change moving forward.
"[The new pads are] a lot lighter, they feel better, so I'm excited about those," said Lehtonen. "For a goalie, though, it's tough to change. Especially for me, since I'm so used to doing the same thing, wearing the same pads, the same gloves, for so long."