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Is Dallas Stars Goalie Kari Lehtonen Elite?

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We consider whether or not Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen is an elite netminder or not.

Bruce Bennett

It's time to take a break from your regularly scheduled kick in the gut to change the subject away from the Stars six game losing streak. Instead we turn our attention to netminder Kari Lehtonen and the extension he signed that just kicked in this season.

The Stars and Lehtonen are contractually tied together for each of the next five seasons at a cap hit approaching six million per season. As the salary cap continues to go up the contract, and all long term deals really, will continue to be smaller and smaller cap problems. But, the contract was signed with the expectation that Kari would be a top of the line backstop.

This year he has merely been average with a .916 save percentage. In fact, since the 2011 season his even strength save percentage has dropped consistently from the high water mark of .928.

Year SV% ES PK
2014 915 920 880
2013 916 924 879
2012 922 926 899
2011 914 928 861

A drop from .928 to .920 doesn't seem like much, but it is. In his career Lehtonen has averaged 31 shots against per game. If we assume Kari plays 60 games this season the drop from .928 to .920 is the difference between 149 goals against and 134. A win is worth about six goals. So that drop in save percentage is worth a little bit more than two wins.

One obvious counter argument to a decline in Kari's performance would be to point out a decline in the Stars defense. That argument doesn't hold much water though for a few reasons. First of all, the Stars are allowing almost the exact same amount of shots at even strength that they have the past two seasons.

Shots Against/60
Year ES 5v4 4v5 3v5
2014 30 11.3 64.7 125.5
2013 30 8.1 55.1 114.5
2012 29.6 7.8 54.6 57.2

Two things that do jump out are the ridiculous amount of shots the Stars give up on both the powerplay and penalty kill. Those aren't going to impact the percentages though, and they definitely aren't going to be impacting his even strength numbers unless an argument about Kari being worn out is attempted. Given the four year even strength trend that argument doesn't hold much water either.

Maybe the Stars are allowing higher quality shots? It would be hard to make that claim, but one place that isn't supported is in the shot distances the Stars allow with Lehtonen on the ice. The table below is the average shot distance at even strength and on the penalty kill the past two seasons.

Season ES PK
2014 34.4 32.7
2013 33.1 38.8

Giving up an additional six feet on the penalty kill is alarming. It still doesn't explain the decline at even strength. The Stars defense has kept opposing offense at about the same distance as last year. The evidence that the Stars defense is the culprit doesn't really exist.

This isn't to say the players in front of a goalie can't make an impact. They obviously do. The John Tavares game winning goal from Sunday night was an obvious defensive breakdown. Those things happen. Do the Stars do break down more than other teams? Maybe, but enough to drive Lehtonen's even strength save percentage down this much over a four year span? Unlikely.

This isn't a doom and gloom scenario where Stars fans need to be pushing Kari out the door. This is more of a reality check. He hasn't been playing at an elite level for a while. He's a good steady goaltender on a contract which should look better over time as the salary cap increases barring a catastrophic collapse or injury.

What this should emphasize is that the Stars need to continue to build in front of him. Limiting chances in front and playing tight defensively can cure a lot of ills. Lehtonen is a good enough goalie to get the Stars where they want to go even if he isn't elite. He just might need more help than most would like to believe.