Dallas Stars' Kari Lehtonen Making Case To Be Considered Among NHL's Elite Goaltenders

Ronald Martinez

Comparing the Dallas Stars netminder with the other top 'tenders in the league.

When Dallas Stars fans say that Kari Lehtonen is one of the NHL's best goaltenders, fans of other hockey teams often roll their eyes.

And, to an extent, it's easy to understand why.

Tucked away deep in the heart of Texas, Lehtonen and the Stars are far away from the hockey media's spotlight, which focuses primarily on Canadian teams, Original Six teams, and teams in the Eastern Conference. (Or, if you're the Toronto Maple Leafs or Montreal Canadiens, you hit the trifecta of media coverage.) As disappointing as it is to Stars fans, the hockey world simply doesn't pay very much attention to the Stars.

The fact that Dallas has missed the playoffs the last five years in a row only exacerbates that.

Stars fans, however, know what's up when it comes to Kari Lehtonen. After watching Lehtonen for the last three and a half seasons, they know that the 29 year-old Finn is one of the league's elite puck-stoppers, a goaltender capable of carrying the entire team on his back and stealing games that they would otherwise have no business winning.

But do the numbers back up the belief that Lehtonen is one of the league's top goalies?

Let's take a look at the top eight number one goalies so far this season, based on goalie statistics, as well as their teams' overall league rank for shots against per game, which helps to paint a picture of the quality of defense that the goalies are playing behind.

GAA Save% Team's SA/G Rank
Tuukka Rask 1.52 .948 11th
Josh Harding 1.21 .947 1st
Carey Price 2.12 .933 22nd
Ben Bishop 1.96 .932 10th
Semyon Varlamov 2.13 .932 23rd
Steve Mason 2.15 .930 13th
Kari Lehtonen 2.08 .929 25th
Marc-Andre Fleury 2.07 .921 5th

Observations:

  • Minnesota Wild goaltender Josh Harding's fantastic start, despite his battle against the debilitating disease multiple sclerosis, is one of the NHL's top feel-good stories. Harding has undoubtedly been one of the league's top goaltenders this season, but has certainly been helped along the way by his teammates (most notably "Million Minute Man" Ryan Suter), as the Wild allow the fewest shots against in the league, at an average of 24.2 per game.
  • Tuukka Rask's Boston Bruins only rank 11th in terms of shots allowed, but it's common knowledge that the Bruins are one of the stiffest defensive teams in the league, led by Norris-winner Zdeno Chara on the blueline, Selke-winner Patrice Bergeron at forward, and Adams-winner Claude Julien behind the bench. Still, credit where credit is due, as Rask is one of the most athletic and competitive netminders in the game today.
  • Semyon Varlamov still sits among the league leaders in terms of goals against average and save percentage thanks to an eye-popping start, but has looked less superhuman since news broke about his alleged domestic abuse legal situation. Varlamov and the Avalanche are committed to playing through it, but you can't help but wonder how much of a distraction it will be for his on-ice focus as the situation progresses.
  • Marc-Andre Fleury's stats suggest that he is rebounding well from a horrible playoffs where he lost the starting job to Tomas Vokoun, but the Pittsburgh Penguins allowing the 5th fewest shots against plays a large role in those. Also, the fact that he continues to allow goals like this doesn't exactly instill confidence.
  • Steve Mason? Really? And the Flyers are only 13th in shots against? Well, OK then. I don't even know what to make of that. Moving on.

So, how does Lehtonen stack up?

Pretty darn well, actually.

Out of those top eight statistical goaltenders, Lehtonen is making saves behind arguably the worst defensive team (including, somehow, the Flyers), with the Stars allowing the 25th most shots per game in the NHL. As Stars fans have watched time and time again, Lehtonen bails out his blueliners. A lot.

The most telling numbers when it comes to how well Lehtonen has played, though, are how poorly the team has played without him. Dan Ellis and Jack Campbell are a combined 1-4, and only have a .890 save percentage between them. Lehtonen's win-loss record between the pipes? 9-3-2. If that doesn't say team MVP, I don't know what does.

Conclusion:

Going by what's been said, the case could definitely be made that Lehtonen is within the top five goalies in the league so far this season, and could arguably be within the top three. His teammates sure seem to think he's already up there. "I've seen some great goaltenders with Timmy [Thomas] in Boston and Tuukka [Rask] and he's right up there, if not even better with his consistency," said Tyler Seguin after Dallas' win over Edmonton Wednesday night. "Every night he is making huge saves for us. We rely a lot on him, but I'd like to take some pressure off him."

And going back to what was said about the hockey media earlier on in the post, if Lehtonen was performing like this for a team in a more eminent market you'd certainly be hearing his name in hockey circles a lot more often.

If Lehtonen continues his strong play throughout the season, will the rest of the hockey world take notice and reward him with an All-Star Game appearance? An Olympic invitation for Finland? Dare I say it...a Vezina nomination?

For all three, it's still too early to say, considering it's only November and less than a quarter of the season has been played so far. But at the very least, Lehtonen deserves the recognition that he is among the league's best at his position. And if everyone doesn't take notice of that by their own will and accord, hopefully Lehtonen's strong play will continue and eventually force them to take notice.

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