When your team's number one goaltender leads the league in any of the position's main categories, it's usually a cause for celebration. Whether it's wins, goals against average, save percentage or shutouts, all of those are indicators that your team is in a stable and reliable status in net.
For the Dallas Stars, however, the one category that their number one netminder, Kari Lehtonen, led the league in is more of a cause for concern than a cause of celebration.
Out of all the goalies that played in the NHL last season, none saw more total ice time than Lehtonen did. With 3803 minutes played spread throughout 65 appearances, the 30 year-old Finn was the league's most active puck-stopper, playing a slim 11 minutes more than the runner up, Pittsburgh's Marc-Andre Fleury.
On one hand, Lehtonen's workload could be seen as a positive thing. For a goalie that has had a long and arduous history of injuries over his NHL career, it's certainly a good sign that he was able to remain healthy for the majority of the season. Lehtonen was only forced out of the lineup twice, once in October because of groin issues, and once in March when he was concussed after being crashed into by the Minnesota Wild's Erik Haula.
On the other hand, a history of serious injuries is always something that needs to be taken into consideration. To his credit, Lehtonen, with the help of Stars goaltending coach Mike Valley, has done excellent work on his conditioning, fitness and overall health since being traded to Dallas in 2010, showing remarkable improvements compared to his time with the Atlanta Thrashers. However, the primary injury concern throughout Lehtonen's career has been his groin, a part of the body that is prone to reoccurring injuries. Lehtonen has missed games due to his groin in 2005, 2007, 2011, and 2013. And the heavier his workload, the greater the risk of strain on that area.
Possibly more concerning than his injury history, however, is his history of struggling play in the final weeks of the regular season. In the three seasons leading up to this past one Lehtonen started each year with a bang, posting impressive numbers and stealing many games that the Stars otherwise had no place winning. Despite this, his performance each year steadily declined as the season wore on, notably right before the playoffs. The Stars, in part, missed the postseason each time. With concerns of Lehtonen being played too often and worn down, calls from fans for him to regularly get more nights off became a common theme.
That wasn't the case last season, obviously, considering his league-high number of minutes played, but something else happened: Lehtonen actually shone as the season went on. Following the Olympic break Lehtonen went red hot, posting a record of 11-5 and a sparkling .926 save percentage, playing a huge role in Dallas' late season surge that saw them fight their way into the postseason as the 8th seed. The playoff-clinching win came thanks to his 22-save shutout over the St. Louis Blues on April 11th.
Comparing his post-Olympic numbers to his season-total record of 33-20-10 and save percentage of .919, it could be assumed that Lehtonen's performance benefited from him being fresh and rested following the Olympic break. He did play for Finland in the Olympics, starting two games for the Bronze-winning nation, but that's an insignificant amount of playing time considering that was his only action over the span of two-and-a-half weeks.
Now, all of this then begs the question: if Lehtonen has a history of injuries and appears to play his best hockey when given a sufficient amount of rest, why did he play so much last season?
The answer, or answers, comes when you look at all of the other goalies that dressed for the Stars last season. Dan Ellis, Tim Thomas, Cristopher Nilstorp and Jack Campbell all saw ice time for Dallas, but unfortunately for the Stars, it often became a nightmare for the team when they did.
Combining the stats for those four goaltenders, they played a total of 1152 minutes, posting a 7-11-1 record and a .896 save percentage.
Knowing that, it's easy to see why Lindy Ruff and his coaching staff decided to roll with Lehtonen so frequently. Considering the Stars only made the playoffs by finishing two points ahead of the Phoenix Coyotes, playing Lehtonen for even a couples games less might have cost the Stars their playoff spot.
Where things get even more interesting, though, is when you look at the moves that the Stars made this summer to change up their goaltending situation heading into next season.
Gone from the organization are Ellis, Thomas and Nilstorp, replaced instead by Anders Lindback and Jussi Rynnas. The 26 year-old Lindback was signed to a one-year deal following two seasons with the Tampa Bay Lightning, while the 27 year-old Rynnas was signed to a two-year deal following a season with Kärpät of the Liiga, Finland's top professional league.
But will these moves actually help improve the situation?
With both goalies being on one-way contracts it appears that the two will compete head-to-head in training camp and preseason, with the winner getting a spot in Dallas and the loser being sent down to the AHL's Texas Stars.
When looking at the raw numbers, Lindback as the solution seems concerning. In 1302 regular season minutes with the Lightning last season he posted an 8-12-2 record and a .891 save percentage, stats that are very similar to what Dallas' rotation of backups achieved. Despite this, goaltending coach Valley and Stars general manager Jim Nill have both publicly expressed optimism regarding Lindback, and seem confident that those numbers will improve with a change of scenery.
Rynnas is a wildcard. He played in the Toronto Maple Leafs' farm system, with little success, from 2010-2013, but was stellar last season in Finland. In 40 starts he posted a remarkable .939 save percentage, which was best in that league. How much of that success will translate to the NHL level, however, remains to be seen.
Campbell deserves a quick mention as well. The 2010 1st rounder is certainly in the picture, thanks in large part to a .942 save percentage in the AHL last season, but the Stars management wants him to play at least one more season in the minors. He might make the team if he really blows the doors off during training camp, but it's unlikely.
Will Lehtonen play less next season? And if so, how will the new backups perform in his place? At this point it's tough to say, but it will certainly be one of the main storylines to follow once the season begins.