What Has Been Going Right For Dallas Stars Goaltender Kari Lehtonen This Season
Some tactical changes and a mental reset have the Stars goalie looking like his old self so far this season.
With the Toronto media horde having access to the Dallas Stars twice in the past few weeks, there's been quite a bit written about how the team's offense is a buzz saw, how Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn are both the unstoppable force and the immovable object, and how the trio of former Chicago Blackhawks are fitting in with their new teammates.
But one of the most important parts of this season's improvement didn't get much mention - the return to form from goalie Kari Lehtonen.
As part of a platoon system with fellow Finnish goalie Antti Niemi, Lehtonen has seen his numbers bounce back to their career averages and better, with a 0.921 save percentage and 2.45 goals against average in eight starts, basically in line with the numbers he's put up with the Stars every season except last one.
The eye test is also reassuring, as he's seemed much more settled this season. Lehtonen has always been able to rely on his natural athleticism, but that may have become a crutch that allowed him to be over-aggressive and vulnerable to both rebounds and plays that developed differently than he originally anticipated.
One of the things new goalie coach Jeff Reese has reportedly been working with Lehtonen on this season is staying deeper in his net, something that helps limit that vulnerability.
"I think it has helped a lot," Lehtonen told Julie Dobbs about working with Reese. "I think I'm never too far away from the puck. I used to be a little too aggressive, and then I wasn't anywhere near for the second save. I think that's been a good thing. We're still working on lots of things and trying to improve the game, but so far, so good."
A great example of why this has helped came on a Jets power play in the second period, where Lehtonen, playing deep in his crease, only shifted a few inches over to his right on an initial shot and was able to recover to make this spectacular toe save after a redirection on the way to the net.
Lehtonen toe save cc @ct460 pic.twitter.com/CG8ZJ2XGCC— Stephanie (@myregularface) November 13, 2015
Lehtonen almost certainly doesn't make this safe last season because he'd be much further out at the top of the crease and have a prohibatively long push to get back for the redirect. While playing deep in the net does, at least theoretically, expose more open space to shooters, it also dramatically lessens the recovery distance for rebounds and redirects.
This type of recovery is particularly important while shorthanded, as the numbers game points out.
According to the fine folks at War-on-Ice.com, Lehtonen has a 0.9158 save percentage at even strength this season, only slightly higher than last season's 0.9142 and still below his career average of around 0.925. However, his 0.9091 save percentage on the penalty kill is significantly higher than last season's 0.8733 and among the best shorthanded save percentages in his career.
(For what it's worth, Antti Niemi has exactly the opposite trend - a dip in his shorthanded save percentage but a slightly higher-than-average 5-v-5 save percentage. Perhaps the Stars should pioneer changing goalies on the fly for special teams situations.)
In terms of league rankings, Lehtonen is slightly below league averages in 5-on-5 save percentage among goalies who have played 300 minutes or more, but he's 18th out of 42 among goalies in all situations and eighth out of 46 goalies when his team is shorthanded. Those are all very nice bounceback numbers after he struggled in every category last season.
Another area where he's improved, at least to the eye test, is in his resiliency. Even though he gave up two goals in quick succession last night (and excluding the fact that the second goal was scored as the direct result of uncalled interference), Lehtonen never looked rattled in the game, something that became a big problem at times last season.
"He gave us three or four real good saves when we needed them," Stars coach Lindy Ruff said after Thursday's game. "I thought he was big on the PK. He made the one-leg save off the redirection which was more a spectacular-type save.
"I thought he battled. He had to battle. That wasn't easy and I know it couldn't be easy for him to stand there and have that one go in and then have to battle back. But I loved the battle in his game, and that's the one thing he's getting better at. He's got some battle, and he could have come unglued too but he didn't. He stood tall for us."
Not coming unglued could sum up about 88 percent of the Stars season thus far (so every game save two). Sometimes things have gone wrong, sometimes things have gone right, but instead of overreacting to the moment, the Stars have been able to at least settle the ship. That doesn't mean every time they stayed settled they won - and we can thank Mike Babcock and James Reimer's voodoo wizardry for that - but it does mean the sense of abject impending doom has been greatly lessened.
And a big part of that has been Lehtonen. Bad things may happen, as they did on Thursday, but outside of the loss to Florida, the bad things haven't driven him deep into his own head and allowed further bad things to snowball. Last night would have been the ideal opportunity for that to happen again - a soft first goal followed almost immediately by a bad-break goal he couldn't go anything about - but he, like his teammates, took a deep breath and got back to their regular game.
Perhaps the mechanics play into that - when your game is necessarily less scrambly because you're not having to recover so often, things probably seem calmer. Perhaps the renewed confidence of the team in front of him is the source. Perhaps whatever mental exploration Lehtonen did over the summer and the preseason is coming to the forefront. Or perhaps the goalie tandem schedule, where each player has gotten a week-long stretch off and been able to mentally and physically reset while the other goalie started, allows for better resiliency.
Most likely, it's some combination of all of the above, and the Dallas Stars are much better for it this season.