Dallas Stars Impact Player Rankings #4: Kari Lehtonen

With an average defense in front of him and the Stars likely to lean heavily on him yet again, can Kari Lehtonen propel himself and the Stars to the next level?

One could make that argument that Kari Lehtonen deserves a higher ranking (if not the top ranking) on our impact player rankings.

The saying is a hot goaltender is the most dangerous player in the playoffs – something like that. Kari was…lukewarm, let’s call it.

He delivered a shutout when the Stars’ needed it the most in Game 3 against the Ducks after relinquishing seven goals in his first two games. His .885 save percentage was third worst among playoff starters.

But I think most Stars fans are willing to cut him some slack as it was just his first full playoff series in his career after a dismal 0-2 record for the 2006-07 Atlanta Thrashers.

His performance against the Ducks in Game 6 with the Stars holding a 4-2 lead and eventually falling 5-4 in overtime, when he allowed two goals in the final 2:10 to send the game to overtime, was a stain on his career to say the least.

It does leave some lingering questions about his mental fortitude, but if the Stars can repeat last season’s breakout campaign, I think Lehtonen will be ready this time around.

I think he can sense that the team has finally grown around him and it’s time for him to take the next step.

Without him, the Stars would not have made the playoffs.

In previous seasons, the Stars would fold down the stretch, and a fade from Lehtonen had been a part of the problem.

This year, desperately needing consistency from their goaltender, the Stars got it from Lehtonen. From February to his final game of the regular season against St. Louis, a game the Stars won emphatically 3-0 on the shoulders’ of Lehtonen’s second shutout in six games, he was 11-5 with a GAA of 2.18.

Still in the prime of his career at the age of 30, Lehtonen has shown progress in each year he’s been with the club. Imagine the progress he might show if there’s a fire under his rump. Anders Lindback, Jussi Rynnas and Jack Campbell don’t absolutely need to give Kari that extra competition, but it could be the final piece to Kari’s development.

Another key is his workload.

Stars goalie coach Mike Valley made it pretty clear in the offseason what the organization’s desired workload for is for him. They’re shooting for 60 games played.

Last season, Kari played a league-high 65 games and while he may not have impressed in the playoffs, it is reasonable to think the Stars overtaxed him.

"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," Valley said. "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."

For the season, Kari finished with 33 wins, one shy of his career high 34 in 2010-11, but that took him 69 games, compared to 65 this season.

His .919 save percentage ranked him tied for 17th in the league and his mediocre 2.41 GAA placed him 21st. Those numbers don’t scream franchise goalie, but Kari’s numbers don’t exactly represent what we all know he is capable of.

In comparison, Eddie Belfour, in his 10th season, posted a career-best .919 save percentage in the Stars 1998-99 Stanley Cup winning season while also winning the William M. Jennings trophy, his fourth of his career, that is handed out to the goalie or goalies in this case (Roman Turek) with the fewest goals scored against. The Stars GAA was 2.01 collectively that season.

Am I saying he’s going to push the Stars to a Stanley Cup victory this year? No.

But if the pieces fall into place this season with his workload and while staying healthy, Kari is absolutely capable of being the Stars’ best player in the playoffs.

Teams are going to scheme for Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Jason Spezza, but Kari will ultimately be the man standing between teams and their victories.

The Stars’ 2.82 goals a game ranked them 10th in the league last season, but their 2.71 goals allowed ranked them 17th. At some point the Stars are going to need to put a competent defense in front of Lehtonen.

So, his success probably does wax and wane as the defense develops, but there’s no reason to suggest that Kari isn’t a franchise goaltender or that he is due for a down season.

If the Stars don’t at least get a similar season from Lehtonen as he produced last season, their chances of making it out of the toughest division in hockey alive look flimsy. But if Kari can knock down his GAA to around at least 2.25 and his save percentage up to the .925 area, that would put him in the top 10 in each category.

Even if Kari doesn't match those numbers, his success will most likely be defined in the playoffs. If he can get the Stars to the playoffs and give himself a chance to rewrite his playoff lore (I’m thinking second round or bust is necessary for that) perhaps that boosts him into the next tier of goalies as the Stars gain more national relevance.

Until then, his meltdown in Game 6 will be a splattered bug on his windshield of a career. Hopefully for the Stars’ sake, he wipes his slate clean and catapults himself into the conversation of the NHL’s elite goaltenders.