Dallas Stars Goaltender Kari Lehtonen's NHL Ranking; He Says He'll Be Ready For Season Opener

Kari Lehtonen is focused on being ready for Thursday's opener against Chicago.

There have been a lot of storylines to focus on this past month as the Dallas Stars head into their most anticipated season in quite some years, but no one really expected Kari Lehtonen to be one of them. On Sunday, we wrote about concerns over Lehtonen's shaky performances in the preseason and how suddenly a position of strength was a bit of a question -- at least for the start of the season.

Lehtonen has been on the ice this week practicing -- as is the rest of the team -- and preparing for the opener against the Chicago Blackhawks. The last game Lehtonen appeared in was over a week ago, at home against the Florida Panthers, in which he allowed three goals before knocked from the game with an apparent concussion. He return to allow four goals in 21 shots in a friendly scrimmage on Saturday -- and that's it until the Blackhawks hit the ice on Thursday night.

Mike Heika was able to get Lehtonen's thoughts on the preseason, and the thoughtful goaltender had some interesting things to say about his game and his approach.

"I would have liked to have played better in the games so far, but I have to look at it that no games have been lost yet and no points gained, so I just have to calm down a little bit and play," Lehtonen told Heika. "I know I can do it, so I just need to go do it."

"We looked at some tape and saw a few things that I can fix, but things in practice are so different from in games, so you have to adjust your mind a little bit," Lehtonen would go on to say. "In practice, there's more time and more crazy stick-handling and you tend to overplay everything. Games are more direct, and so then I have to be more direct and play a simpler game."

Lehtonen has always been a goaltender that likes a heavy workload in the preseason, he wants to get into the rhythm of the season and the games and be at his best when the games start to count. An odd schedule for the preseason, along with his injury, seemingly knocked that ability to get into the flow aside and his play during games reflected as much.

Heika notes that Lehtonen has shown an ability to bounce back from bad games and get out of slumps, and the hope is that happens this time around as well.

"I think part of being a good goalie is being able to forget, but then still remember the stuff you need to remember," Lehtonen said. "It's nice to have a couple of days to work on things, but there's also a part of you that wants to get out there and play and see how it feels during a regular game."

On an interesting note, Craig Custance of ESPN published his story today ranking the NHL's goaltenders after he polled and talked to executives from around the league on their thoughts on the starting netminders. Custance broke down the goaltenders into separate tiers according to their scores, and Kari Lehtonen was firmly at the top of "Tier 2" and tied for No. 8 overall in the NHL -- with Cory Schneider, Ben Bishop, Ryan Miller and Roberto Luongo.

At this point in his career, Lehtonen has settled into his place in the league as a goalie who isn't one of the three or four best, but one who is still better than a majority of his peers. And when he's at his best, he's capable of stealing games. He's always had every physical tool needed to be a great goalie, one of the reasons why he was drafted so high (No. 2 overall in 2002) by Atlanta. "This guy is smooth. He is so flexible. He is very quick," said a coach. "He's an extremely good goaltender. He's taken huge steps since he came through Atlanta."

He's also established himself in the NHL while playing in front of some shaky defenses, so he gets full marks for being a goalie who has excelled without always having the best players around him. "He covered a lot of Dallas' mistakes," said a voter. "I don't think people realize how good he was. When he's on his game, bad goals just don't go in."

Previous concerns over his conditioning seem to have dissipated. The only question left with Lehtonen is mental. "Kari can beat himself," said an Eastern Conference coach. "Henrik doesn't beat himself. I haven't seen Tuukka beat himself. [Lehtonen] will beat himself. That's really a mental thing but you're still talking about the creme de la creme. He's an extreme talent."

Lehtonen is an interesting case, especially in regards to his standing historically as the Stars goaltender, he's now seventh all-time in games played for the franchise (241) among goaltenders, but already has the fourth-most saves and is tops in franchise history in save percentage (.917). Lehtonen has played on much worse teams than Ed Belfour or Marty Turco and has done well in covering up many of the issues on the Stars the past few years.

The question now is whether he can help lead the team through the playoffs, like Belfour did, and put the rest of these questions to bed.