Kari Lehtonen has bounced between good, quality seasons and severely underwhelming ones throughout his tenure with the Dallas Stars, which has made him quite the polarizing figure across the fanbase. So it’s perhaps fitting that, in what might have been Lehtonen’s final year in Dallas, the veteran goalie gave the team two very different performances during the season.
The first Lehtonen was a former 1A/1B starter that transitioned seamlessly into his new role of backup goaltender behind Ben Bishop. He had played in just 22 games by March, had started in 17 of them, but was putting up excellent numbers during that time. He had recorded 11 wins, only four losses, and a .919% save percentage after facing 531 shots throughout the season.
Lehtonen was everything you could ask for out of a backup; he won games, he gave the starter much needed rest and time off, and, most importantly, he could be relied on in case the starter was having a bad game or went down due to injury.
Well, Bishop was injured, exiting the Stars’ March 5 game against the Ottawa Senators after just a single period of play, and that’s where the second iteration of Lehtonen came in. Bishop played only one more full game in the season (also against the Senators), and the team won just five out of their 17 games, including an eight-game losing streak that caused them to plummet out of postseason contention.
During that stretch, Lehtonen played 15 games, started in 13 of them, and won only four. He allowed 40 goals on 415 shots, and had a .904% save percentage. For years, his critics always voiced that he couldn’t get it done under pressure, most notably during the Stanley Cup playoffs, and he ended his season proving them all right.
Or did he? You can make the argument that despite his worse stats, Lehtonen wasn’t the reason Dallas went on that horrific losing streak and missed the playoffs. As I wrote back in March, the Stars’ main issue during the streak was a lack of scoring during their games, with the 6-5 loss against the Toronto Maple Leafs being the only exception. In his first three starts after Bishop went down to injury, Kari Lehtonen allowed only three goals on 88 shots — good for an outstanding .965% save percentage — but the Stars only managed to score three goals themselves and thus only won one of those games.
The Stars ended up missing the playoffs by just three points. If the team had managed to actually score during those three games and won all three, then you might be reading a preview for Game 7 between the Nashville Predators and the Dallas Stars today, rather than articles about player grades and the search for a new head coach. And while Lehtonen’s quality of play started to drop after those first three starts, so did the team in general; you can hardly point to Lehtonen as the reason the team missed the playoffs.
Of course in the end, results are what matter, and the fact is that Lehtonen did not drag his team to victory when they needed him to do so most. For that reason, the expectation seems to be that Lehtonen will not be returning to Dallas next season as the team looks to move on, even though the consensus two months ago was that the longtime Stars goaltender would be staying on a team-friendly deal.
One final note: Kari Lehtonen finished the season with 15 wins and 14 losses over 37 games and 30 starts, and compiled a .912% save percentage and 2.56 GAA. That save percentage is better than playoff goalies such as Braden Holtby and Matt Murray, one of which is a former Vezina Trophy winner and the other of which has recently won back-to-back Stanley Cups. Those stats are also not far behind Ben Bishop’s with exception to the win-loss ratio — Bishop started 51 out of 53 games, played for 26 wins and 17 losses, and posted a .916% save percentage and 2.49 GAA.
It’s also worth noting that Bishop barely played when the Stars were playing their worst hockey of the year during that awful month of March. Lehtonen, on the other hand, was in net practically every minute of it. So was Lehtonen as bad as you thought, or was he just a small part of a much bigger problem? You decide:
Grade Kari Lehtonen’s 2017-18 Season
This poll is closed
A for Awesome backup who was dealt a bad last hand
B for Bad towards the end, but good overall
C for Could have been better, could have been worse
D for Did not step up when the Stars needed him to most
F for Failed under pressure one final time