Concern Growing Over Dallas Stars Goaltender Kari Lehtonen's Shaky Preseason?

The stalwart in goal for the Stars has struggled this preseason and looks to still be a bit rusty as the opener against Chicago looms -- how concerned should we be?

Dallas Stars goaltender Kari Lehtonen is a person of habit. A set schedule and routine is meant to get Lehtonen into the mental space necessary for the games he plays, for a position that is just as much mental as it is physical.

Right now, it seems that Lehtonen is thrown off his routine and as such -- his play on the ice in the preseason hasn't exactly been what we've expected from the stalwart in goal for the Stars.

Lehtonen has always wanted a heavy workload in the preseason, a way for him to get into the routine of the regular season and to be as sharp as possible by the time the games start to actually count. Lehtonen came from the Finnish goaltender development pipeline and many goaltenders from the European leagues are used to a lengthy preseason, rather than the quick-and-dirty preseason of the NHL.

This preseason in particular has been a rather odd one for the Stars, with six exhibition games in nine days with nine days then off before the start of the regular season. With the Stars trying to settle on a backup for Lehtonen, there was a need to give more playing time to the other goalies while still trying to get the veteran into the routine he desires before the game against Chicago.

After Saturday's Green & White scrimmage in Cedar Park, it's clear that Lehtonen hasn't exactly found that routine and definitely doesn't appear to be comfortable in net yet with just five days remaining before the Blackhawks come to town -- and no more preseason games remaining.

In appearing in parts of three preseason games, Lehtonen has a 4.82 goals-against average and an alarmingly low .802 save percentage. After a decent start to the season, he was pulled from a game in which he was supposed to play the full 60 minutes and then was knocked from his next game with a concussion in the third period.

On Saturday, Lehtonen allowed four goals on 21 shots -- it wasn't just the goals allowed but the type of goal allowed, getting pulled completely out of position by Ales Hemsky before having a shot banked off his back and then allowing a baffling shot from distance o get through him off the stick of Jyrki Jokipakka.

"He's a little out of sorts right now, and I think we saw that in the scrimmage," Stars coach Lindy Ruff said after Saturday's scrimmage. "I don't know quite what that is, but he's not letting the play come to him and we've got to help him find that."

Last season, Lehtonen played the most minutes of any player in the NHL and was arguably one of the team's best players throughout, posting a 2.41 GAA and .919 save percentage. In talking with Craig Custance of ESPN this past week for out podcast, he stated that Lehtonen was rated as one of the best goaltenders in the NHL by executives around the league -- the goaltender went a long way towards proving himself last season as the Stars made the playoffs for the first time in five seasons.

This year the Stars -- and Lehtonen -- are expected to take another step forward. Lehtonen appeared shaky and inconsistent at times in the postseason series against the Ducks and if the Stars have any hopes of getting past the first round this year Lehtonen will have to be even better when all of the chips are on the table.

Which is why it's concerning to be having this discussion with less than a week before the high-flying Chicago Blackhawks come to town. The Stars have made changes in the offseason and the defense could be very shaky to start the year -- especially with Brenden Dillon having just this one scrimmage under his belt before the season begins.

Perhaps it really is about the routine and how this odd preseason has apparently thrown Lehtonen off his game. The schedule was certainly not very advantageous to getting into any sort of routine and it's important to note that Saturday was his first game since suffering that concussion last Monday.

Could we have a shaky and rusty Lehtonen to start the season? It certainly seems to be the case as the Stars prepare for Chicago and then a quick two-game road trip. The Stars have relied on Lehtonen in the past to provide stability in net while the team in front of him spends a month or so to figure their own game out, and it appears this season we could have the opposite occur.

The Stars can't afford a slow start to the season, not with the expectations placed upon them in what is certainly going to be an even more competitive Central Division than last season. Can Kari Lehtonen find his game before Thursday's season opener?

Let's keep our fingers crossed.