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Dallas Stars Impact Player #3: Kari Lehtonen

Over the next month, Defending Big D will be counting down the most important "impact" players for the upcoming season for the Dallas Stars. Starting from the player we believe will have the smallest influence on this season to the player with the most, we'll countdown from #23 all the way to the top as we get ready for what we hope will be a very promising season.

Fan favorite Marty Turco was the man in the pipes for the Dallas Stars since the 2002-2003 season. He had taken the team to the postseason in 5 out of his first 6 seasons. Sure, they had struggled as a team in 2008-2009, and didn't make the playoffs.  But that didn't mean it would continue that way.

Fast forward to the 2009-2010 season. The Stars were still struggling in the Western Conference fight. So when the Stars traded what was touted as one of their highly regarded prospects in Ivan Vishnevsky and a fourth round pick for a goalie out of Atlanta, the writing on the wall became clear. Marty Turco was not going to be in the pipes for the Stars for much longer.

Enter Kari Lehtonen. Three seasons removed from taking the Atlanta Thrashers to their first and only postseason appearance in franchise history, Lehtonen had struggled with injuries limiting his playing time. A groin injury had plagued Lehtonen, and then he required back surgery. Not exactly traits you want in your primary goalie. Not to mention what was given up to get him, which at the time seemed like a much higher risk for what was an unknown quantity in Lehtonen.

The Stars then surprised everyone by awarding Lehtonen with a three year, $10.65 million contract -- after having appeared in only 12 games for the Stars at the end of the 2009-2010 season. What, exactly, did the Stars see in a goalie that had come off of back surgery and had a notorious history of not taking conditioning in the offseason seriously?

What the Stars got from Lehtonen was a man determined -- determined to prove that he still had the form to be a top goalie in the NHL. This determination translated into Lehtonen taking conditioning seriously and showing up to camp last season in the best shape he had been in over the past years. Once the season got underway, Lehtonen displayed a different style from what most Stars fans were used to seeing. Where fans had grown accustomed to Turco's flashy saves and phenomenal puckhandling, Lehtonen was more positionally sound and used his frame to stop pucks.

The difference between the two goalies that does not show up on the stat sheets is "that save." The one save in the game that changes the momentum of the game. Whether it be keeping the deficit from becoming inconquerable (a la the absolute steal Lehtonen made against Chicago when the Stars were done by 3 goals -- when the Stars then climbed out of the deficit to win in the shootout) or from allowing any goal whatsoever (a la those saves off the faceoffs to avoid a quick strike goal.) It was something Stars fans had missed over the previous seasons, and something that was very nice to see in goal once again with Lehtonen between the pipes.

The one concern with last season was the number of games that Lehtonen played. A career high 69 games, Lehtonen was used almost every game down the stretch last season. With someone who has a history of back issues, it's not exactly ideal in the first season back.

This season, Lehtonen will need to play less games in order to keep fresh down the stretch. He got too worn out down the stretch and was not as sharp as he had been earlier in the season, not always making "that save" that Stars fans had grown so accustomed to so quickly. The workload will need to be evened out this season moreso between Lehtonen and Raycroft.

Lehtonen also needs to continue staying healthy. There was a stretch in the season where Lehtonen was held out a few games as a precaution after experiencing some tightness. Close monitoring of his body will allow the team to head off any injuries before they become big issues. Lehtonen also continued working on his conditioning this offseason, but one does wonder if taking an extended time off due to his getting married may have an affect on how conditioned he is going into training camp. If the skates he has been taking in Frisco for the past month or so are any indication, he should be just fine.