[Editor's Note: Longtime loyal reader and aspiring Finnish sports journalist Henri Muroke was able to sit down with Kari Lehtonen last month for a rather candid interview with the Dallas Stars goaltender. The interview originally appeared for Jatkoaika online (which can be found here) and we thank Henri for his work in translating the interview for us here at DBD.
Please note this interview was on November 19, just after the bad loss to Carolina, so please keep that mind when reading. Lehtonen has always been rather open with his thoughts on hockey, himself and the Stars and this interview is no different. - Brandon Worley ]
Henri: How does the season feel so far?
Kari Lehtonen: Kinda hard so far. Somehow this has been nothing like mundane. I don't remember when was the last time we have been this shiftly.
It feels like, when I'm having a good game, the team can't score enough. And when the team plays well, my game is not good enough. It has been a bit hard, but there's still a lots of season left. Hopefully we can change the course of our team.
The Team has lost a lot more as a hometeam, than as a visitor. Any ideas why?
We have been trying a little bit of everything in our homegames. We have been trying too hard and sometimes we are not playing it simple enough. As a visitors our game has been a bit more simple. Not perhaps as pretty, but it has worked better.
It's easier said than done though when we try to play the same at home, that we play as a visitor. We have been trying, but we haven't found our thing as a team yet.
The Stars got lots of new players during the summer. How have they adapted so far?
Pretty well. Jason Spezza is a world-class player and is a fit for any team. Perhaps Ales Hemsky has had a bit of rough time, but that will change too eventually. He's quite a wizard with a puck.
When things start turning around, I'm sure he'll start doing more good things. There have been changes with our defenseman also.
We are trying hard to find our gameplan and our style of play as a team. It usually takes about 20 games to find it, hopefully it's the same thing this season.
The Stars have lots of young defenseman this season. How has that affected you and your game with the defense? During the game against the Hurricanes, it looked like you had lots of things to say to each other.
It takes some time to learn how each defender wants to "come and go". And before the rotation becomes automatic.
I don't have to think my own game as much with veteran defenders like Trevor Daley and Alex Goligoski.
Younger defenders have been playing pretty well though and they have been trying hard. Jyrki Jokipakka has brought some new challenges though. It has been more than ten years since I had a Finn as a defenseman in my team. First I'll yell some English and then some Finnish too and that takes some time. That's a new learning experince for me too.
Has there been any specific young defender, one that has stands out more than others? John Klingberg's development since his days from Jokerit Helsinki has been huge, but any certain player for you?
He has played 3-4 games now and has been quite the pro out there. Good decisions with the puck. He is strong and not afraid of doing mistakes. It has been a surprise for me, or not a surprise, but you take a notice.
Other defenders are a bit different, their roles are more about the defense. You don't see that many frills with them. I saw Klingberg for the first time two years ago and he was - as a player - pretty good with puck. Well, now he is excellent. I don't know how his time with Jokerit went, perhaps there were some growing pains then.
Another one who has been playing really great is Jamie Oleksiak. Lots of big steps and he even dominated few times in the offensive zone during the last game. It was great to see that.
You have been playing pretty much again. How does it feel so far?
My body feels good and I have felt fine, but of course it feels a bit heavier when we don't win enough.
When we win, the days go better and that's why this has been harder than before. There have been two hour flights back to home, that have felt like a five hour flights after a loss. It is something we hopefully can change.
When you win more, it's easier to play more. But there are no problems though. The season is still young and I have enough energy.
I am not going to talk about injuries, but let's take another aspect. You have enjoyed much healthier times in Dallas. What's different with the way you practise? If we look at the evolution of your fitness, you look very different from your days with the Jokerit and the Trashers. What's different now?
During my days with Jokerit I didn't have to train that hard. that was not a good thing to me, but the skill level allowed success with less training. Then it became a habit, because I did good. It was okay to come to arena one hour before the practise, do some stretching and join the rink.
Then during my time in Atlanta I found out that's not good enough in this league. So many games and much more traveling. It took years for me to understand how hard I have to work. Then we tried to find out what kind of things would work for me and what kind of warm-ups should I do.
When I came here (Dallas), it was a very good wake-up call. One team let me go. I understood that I have to work really hard, if I still want to play in this league. In Dallas I have done that and as I grow older, I realize that I have to work twice the harder to get the same results while training during the summer.
Have you had a different training/fitness coach now? If I remember correctly, after Atlanta traded you and the season in Dallas was finished, you spent the summer in Atlanta. Did the Stars hire a training coach from Atlanta and after you moved hire, one from Dallas?
After the trade - it was during the February - I did spend one summer in Atlanta. The training coach of the Stars visited me in Atlanta and told me what kind of workout should I do. I trained that summer in Atlanta and I still spend some time there during every summer.
There are no circus tricks really.
If you had to compare your training during the summer and during the season, what's the biggest difference? During the summer it might be harder to find places to skate in Dallas?
In the cities (Atlanta/Dallas) where I have spent my summers, there are not many possibilities to hit the ice. There are some though in Dallas and during the summer I spent three weeks in Atlanta - my wife is from there - and I skated in my old practise arena, it was fun.
I don't skate that much during the summer, during this summer once a week. I hit the gym a lot more. And not lots of benchtraining. It's more important do some lifting with lower weights with every part of your body and swimming is also a good way to train.
You are close with the goaltending coach Mike Valley. Which things have you been training the most and which have been the most important for your development?
Perhaps the biggest difference has been, that in Atlanta the goaltending coach wanted me being a lot more active and I basically had to "eat the puck" when it came to me. In Dallas we have been going a few steps backwards in that area. The focus is that I have to be more calm and wait, what the players will do first.
Mike is a half Swedish and played in Swedish league, in the AIK. Therefore he knows better what goes on in the heads of European players, like me. During the practise we are going back to simple/basic saves and we are trying to keep the action during the practise much more simple, comparing to action that happens during the games. The game is much faster and it feels like I have more time to react during the game, after training things like this.
Perhaps I spoke myself to a whole a bit, but when we train, it starts from zero. We begin with easy things, then we take steps up and up. Like taking the stairs. Therefore when others hit the ice, goalies are fully ready. That has been very different, comparing my times in Atlanta.
Is that the reason you hit the ice 15 minutes before the others join you?
Yes. Earlier we tried to fight, or the goaltending coach tried to fight with the Head coach, that the first three rotations should be about warming the goalies and that doesn't serve rest of the team.
Then we thought about it and realized that how about we warm ourselves before the others join the ice. Now when they do, we are fully ready for them. It's a big help and there are less reasons to lose my nerves during the practise. Like getting some hard slapshots right away, when the goalies are still a bit cold.
How have the fans been during the season, since it has been a bit hard one so far? When you look at the players you got during the summer and the really good ending of the last season, there should be more excitement towards the hockey. The main core of the fans have been strong the whole time, but have there been more other fans too and some common excitement?
Yes, a lot more. When you walk in the streets, more people come to talk to you and they ask questions about hockey, that has been a really cool thing to see. Comparing some earlier seasons. There were not that much interest then.
This was the first game (against the Hurricanes) when there were less people at the arena. I understand that, since we haven't played well enough here. Another good thing to notice is that the fans are booing us now. It's a good thing because it's a sign of interest.
That's why this has been so hard, because we have started our season poorly. The last season ended well and therefore the expectations grow bigger. We lost few good players and then got a few really good ones. That's why the expectations grow only bigger and it does affect us. Therefore we must turn our course.
Along with the fans, the team and the whole organization should be excited of your future. What are your expectations about the season? You play at the "stone cold" Central Division, the division that saw almost every team getting stronger during the summer.
Our goal is to continue from where the last season ended and take a step or two forward. We haven't given up on that, even if things have been hard. We also had some periods of time during the last season, when things did not go that well.
Now that period came to the start and has been a bit longer one. It makes our road to the playoffs a harder one, but we believe we can still fight our way there and after that set us new goals.
What was the key moment last season, when you turned things around? You had a long period where things went bad and suddenly you were a totally different team. GM Jim Nill told to the media that the spirit in the locker room was so good, that he wasn't going to break it with changes/trades. If you look at players like Daley and Goligoski, their play at the end of the season was not comparable to the way they played before.
No, those are strange things and very hard to explain. I think it was during January when we lost many games and were hanging outside the playoffs. During the last season it was the same thing also, we didn't play at home as well as we should have.
Then during the rest of the season it changed and we didn't lose that many games. Our arena became a true home for us. The more wins we got there, the more we thought that there are no other ways. We have to get two points from every game. That carried us.
It's hard to tell where we got that and if we had a button to press for that, we had already done that. I just hope we'll get the same feeling now, we got at the end of the last season.
One final thing. How much does the play of Jamie Benn affect you? To fans it looks like the team goes where the captain does. When Benn plays well, that affect the whole team, but his bad luck with scoring for example affects the whole team.
Benn is our true leader. It's hard to say or I didn't even think about the lack of his scoring. But that and the fact that games have not been going well lately, it's a funny coincidence.
It's hard to see this from the view of fans - or the others - who leads this orchestra at the locker room and pushes us forward. Jamie shows us an example and it has been great to see - from the moment I came here and it was his first season - how in few years he has taken huge steps forward and is now an elite as a player and our leader. I'm glad that I can play with him.