Once again, I'm going to look back on a player's season in 2013 and not worry about the numbers. Let's take a look at the bigger picture, if we can.
The Dallas Stars have fully committed to Kari Lehtonen as the franchise goaltender for at least the next three seasons; Jack Campbell is showing some real promise and potential in the AHL, and will likely become the No. 1 guy in Austin next season, but is still at least three years away from even starting to compete with Lehtonen for the starting job in Dallas.
In 2013, Lehtonen took a few big steps forward to becoming a truly "elite goaltender" in the NHL and is undoubtedly one of the best in the Western Conference. For the better part of the first half of the season, Lehtonen was playing better than he ever had in his career up to that point - while facing an absurd amount of shots per game. His journey from a disappointing former first-round draft pick to the ultimate professional on and off the ice has been remarkable to behold, and any success the Stars have enjoyed the past two years can almost be directly attributed to the play of Lehtonen in net.
Once again, Lehtonen proved just how shaky his injury situation can be. Once again, a groin injury knocked Lehtonen out for a good chunk of the season - this time, he missed seven games after tweaking his groin on a relatively innocuous play, very similar to what happened in 2011 that caused Lehtonen to miss just over a month. Later in the season, he missed four more games with another ‘tweak' of his groin.
The Stars were just 3-4-1 with Lehtonen out in February, allowing more than three goals per game in all but one contest during that span.
This is a reality that has hit the Stars in recent years, as finding consistent play from the backup position behind Lehtonen has been a major issue the past two seasons. Richard Bachman, so strong the year before, struggled in his return to the NHL after the lockout and needed a trip to the AHL to get himself back on track. Cristopher Nilstorp, so strong in the AHL for most of the year, stumbled after an injury of his own and never regained the trust of the coaching staff.
This resulted in Lehtonen appearing in nearly every game this season for which he was healthy, with the Stars leaning very heavily on their goaltender for the second season in a row. When you combine the workload with the inconsistencies provided by his injuries, Lehtonen played through perhaps his most rollercoaster of a season since coming to Dallas in early 2010.
While the Stars put together a nice run to finish out the season and tease a surprise visit to the postseason, Lehtonen wasn't able to carry the team down the stretch like he had to start the season - resulting in five straight losses and yet another year without playoff hockey in Dallas.
Not to say the late-season stumble is on Lehtonen's shoulders; in fact, the team has been praised for even getting to that point. In fact, many of the issues plaguing the Stars has absolutely nothing to do with Lehtonen's play and everything to do with the team in front of him. It's interesting to think how he would perform should the Stars actually get a solid and cohesive defensive unit to play in front of him.
For those that have watched him throughout his career, it's also clear that Lehtonen is playing his absolute best since coming to the NHL. He's reigned in his over-aggressive play in the crease and has allowed shrewd positioning and smart play to supplement his incredible reflexes and mechanics. For those that really study the position, Lehtonen is insanely fun to watch play - especially when he's completely on top of his game.
What's also clear is that Lehtonen is prone to fatigue, especially when he's leaned on over a length of time throughout the season. While Lehtonen is almost certainly one of the top goaltenders in the NHL, 2013 was another example of how he'll never really be a true "workhorse" of a goaltender - nor should the Stars expect him to be. It's not so much the amount of games he's played each season, but the long stretches the Stars have gone with Lehtonen in net before getting him another break.
Moving forward, there are several goals the Stars must focus on reaching. Finding consistent and solid backup goaltending - doesn't have to be elite goaltending from the backup, but at least be consistent - should be at the top of this list. Finding the best way for Lehtonen to remain healthy and fresh throughout the season would be next, hopefully aided by the search for consistent backup play.
At some point in the near future, the Stars will - we hope - be back in the postseason. Getting there, and being successful once there, is going to rely largely on the play by the Dallas Stars netminders. If Lehtonen continues to tire out as the season reaches March and April, as he has the past two years, then finally reaching the postseason goal will become all the more difficult.
Kari Lehtonen is a tremendous goaltender, but there are still several factors at play holding him and his team back. Address those issues, and chances are we see even more growth from Lehtonen and the Dallas Stars moving forward.