For all of us who saw Kari Lehtonen in Game 6 against the Anaheim Ducks in the western conference quarterfinals, when he and the Stars gave up two goals in the final two and a half minutes of regulation to let what looked like a sure win and potential Game 7 slip through their fingers, questions about his reliability in big moments arose.
Let’s establish a few key points here first.
Kari put the team on his back down the stretch of the regular season and it wouldn’t have been there without him, no thanks to Tim Thomas or any of our backups.
Without completely piling on just how average the defense was, the defensemen didn’t exactly do the Stars any favors down the stretch. Any games that were won with a defensive effort, Kari was at the center of each victory, not the defensive system in front of him. That system is sure to change. It has to if the Stars are going to get past the first round of the playoffs with some gas left in the tank for Kari to lean on during a Stanley Cup run.
Now, the Stars somehow made it into the playoffs as the 8th seed. I say somehow because with the past couple seasons with an opportunity to secure a playoff spot, the Stars found a way to crumble. I was genuinely surprised the Stars made the playoffs given where they stood with 20 games remaining in the season.
The Stars went 11-8-1 in that stretch, which at first glance seems average, but if you think about who played during those games, the picture starts becoming clearer.
Thomas started seven games during that stretch, allowing 24 goals and earning a 2-4-1 record.
Kari on the other hand, won nine of the Stars’ 11 wins in that time span, allowing just 12 goals and going 9-4-0.
So, the value of a capable backup has become pretty apparent in the past couple of seasons.
When I spoke with Stars goaltending coach Mike Valley at the development camp a few weeks ago, I could not help but ask him if he thought Kari was physically or mentally fatigued.
His answer shouldn’t surprise any followers of Kari during his tenure here in Dallas.
"Kari is such a good soldier," Valley said. "I feel like I know him really well and I can tell based off his attitude and his body language where he’s at. He’s going to come ready to play and what a lot of people don’t know is Kari is a guy that shows up three hours before practice and three hours before a game. He’s the first guy here taping his stick."
"He puts so much mentally and emotionally into every day, that when he finally does get a day off that it’s very relaxing to him because he can just completely unwind. The thing for him is he wants to be successful. He does all the little things. He’s the ultimate pro. So he will never stand here and tell anyone that he was mentally drained."
So somebody in the organization needed to and probably has recognized that they don’t want to continue to put Kari in that situation. The signings of Anders Lindback and Jussi Rynnas along with the development of Jack Campbell are signs that Dallas is aware and prepared to address the situation with multiple strategies.
Tim Thomas was a good idea in theory, with his invaluable Stanley Cup experience playing a significant role in trading for him Dan Ellis, who went 5-6-0 during his time in Dallas with a 3.04 GAA and .900 save percentage, but Thomas still seemed to be regaining his form throughout the season as he dealt with several injuries.
Valley pointed out that this season with the Olympic break and the previous season’s lockout, the schedules haven’t particularly been conducive to the Stars’ recently frequent predicament of making their playoff charge late in the season.
Kari was affected just the same as anyone else.
"If you look at the last two seasons we’ve had with the lockout season, which was a condensed schedule and we look at last year because of the Olympic break which was a condensed schedule; it’s a lot to put on anybody," Valley said. "He played the most minutes in the league so for us to say that he wasn’t mentally drained is probably pretty unreasonable for any one of us to assume. He would probably tell you he wasn’t. I think it’s our job as a staff to make sure that we balance that and you don’t just do it for goaltenders, you do it for everybody."
The problem for Kari and the Stars is about finding that fine line with just how far to push the minutes and games down the stretch. This problem isn’t just a Stars problem Valley says; it’s a league-wide problem.
"It’s every team," Valley said. "You get down to the last two months; you’re looking at the standings and you have a world-class goalie at your disposal and you feel as a staff not only performance wise but team feeling wise that when he’s in there that he’s your rock. That’s no disrespect to anybody else that played in that backup role for us, but that’s just the reality of it. He’s that good. He gets paid a lot of money."
One aspect of what Valley said sticks out to me. The team feels and plays better when he is between the pipes. They should play the same, but it makes sense. He does have a quiet confidence about him that resonates throughout the team.
As Robert Tiffin pointed out, Kari’s contract is relatively inexpensive at five years, $5.9 million.
If you view him as a centerpiece of the team, which I think is clear to most people at this point, $5.9 million is a steal, especially considering the salary cap going up this season to 69 million – a $4.7 million dollar increase from a season ago.
Conversely, Carey Price is raking in $6.5 million a year as a part of a six-year deal while Tuukka Rask is making $7 million a year for eight years.
While Price and Rask are top five NHL goalies with 34 and 36 wins last season respectively, Kari, who led the league in games played with 65, was right behind them 33 wins, but needing six or seven more games to do it.
Valley and the Stars have an idea where they want Kari for next season.
"I’ve always said, how we get Kari to play at an even higher level is one, I think the ideal amount of games for him is about 60," Valley said. "We say that every year and then you get into a situation where it’s hard when you have a world-class goalie at your disposal and not play him, especially when you’re in such a tight playoff race. I think sometimes, if you have the ability to play him a little bit less and keep him mentally fresh, than you can squeeze a little bit more out of him."
Lindy Ruff and Stars management have to have confidence that he can go to his backup goalie and not only will they perform like a starter, but that the team will perform like its playing in front of a starter, not a backup.
I’m fascinated with the mental impact that playing with a backup has had on the Stars as of late, so this season has to be different if Kari is going to take that next step as a top-flight goalie. From Kari, to the backups, to the defensemen, to the forwards.
It’s going to take a little competition.
"The other thing on how to get him to a higher level or anybody to a higher level, no matter if you’re a goaltender or a journalist or a goalie coach, is you have somebody nipping at your heels," Valley said. "It kind of keeps you sharp and it keeps you extra motivated every day, not that these guys need extra motivation. It’s just human nature."
In Part 2 of our chat with Valley, we’ll see what the other goalies are bringing into this season and how they can play a part in the bolstering of Dallas’ goaltending position.