Sturm Words: Kari Lehtonen
Like many of you, I have an odd relationship with the hockey media. I love the sport and love those who cover it, but I also – as a consumer based in Texas and a supporter and season ticket holder of this local organization – understand that I have to consume said media with the proper filter and understanding that the national media will never give much time nor thought to the team that I support.
Now, this could mean the NHL Network (which I frequently enjoy), the Hockey News (which I happily subscribe), or many other spots: Sirius/XM, Puck Daddy, or good old Hockey Night in Canada. It is all basically the same – great love for the sport, great coverage of the sport, and almost nothing about the Dallas Stars ever.
I get it. What do I want? It is like the reverse Dallas Cowboys effect. Clearly, in the NFL, when in doubt, talk about the Cowboys and teams that get people fired up. Conversely, don’t talk too much about Jacksonville, Tampa Bay, or Arizona. In the NHL, the teams that get the ratings fired up Cowboys-style would be the Original 6, the Canadian teams, or the teams with Crosby and Ovechkin. This isn’t difficult to understand and frankly, when your local team hasn’t made the playoffs since George Bush was the president, well, they may be making a wise business decision.
And I believe in due time, that will all change, because winning is the name of the game and even if you aren’t in a traditional hockey market where the mere mention of the franchise name evokes memories of the good ol’ days, they still won’t be able to ignore you altogether when you keep knocking down the teams they would rather discuss.
Like I said, I get it.
But, there is one exception to this rule that I really would implore the NHL press to get with the program on. And that Is the Finn who stands between the pipes at American Airlines Center. This week, my new Hockey News issue appeared in my mailbox and it so happened to be the “goalie issue”. And there, they ranked the goalies: #1 Jonathan Quick, #2 Henrik Lundqvist, #3 Tuukka Rask and so on…#10 Roberto Luongo, #11 Jimmy Howard, #12 Mike Smith…#18 Cam Ward and finally at #19 Kari Lehtonen.
#19? Are you kidding? Come on, man!
Kari Lehtonen has demonstrated – again – that he is amongst the elite goaltenders in the NHL with both his presence and unfortunately, with his absence here in the first month of the season.
We all know that the Stars have certain limitations to their roster right now in the form of a defense corps that in no way resembles the strength of the roster as it did in both 1999 and 2000 when they were winning a Cup and playing for another or even the 2008 version who went to the final 4 with a strong blue-line that helped Marty Turco with the best run of his career.
They are trying to figure out their defense, and in doing so continue to ask their forwards to lend more help (with varying results) but more than anything, they ask their goaltenders to clean up a lot of messes.
And, therein lies the good news/bad news parts of Kari’s dossier. He is a fantastic goalie that almost never surrenders the untimely bad goal that Turco was guilty of, yet offers the ability to make the same big saves. He seems capable of stealing games and keeping them in spots where maybe they don’t deserve. He is a workhorse who never seems to need a night off.
But, with that comes a price. He gets hurt with a reasonable amount of regularity, and although that has improved over his career, if he has a fatal flaw that limits his praise nationally, it might be that his durability keeps his team on pins and needles. If you have an elite goalie that leaves you for 4-6 weeks every season, then you realize that the drop-off to his understudies will always be quite pronounced and inevitable when they must start every game for a few weeks.
And how abundantly clear has then been in 2013-14 so far?
Kari has started 7 games (left midway through in Winnipeg with a very healthy lead) and has allowed 11 goals in 201 shots against (around 29 shots a start). That 94.5% save percentage is through the roof and amongst the best in the league, not to mention a GAA of a silly 1.66. Both are squarely in the top 5 and the Stars have grabbed 9 points of a possible 14 when he was present.
But, in between, the Stars played 2 weeks without Kari. Now, let’s not pretend that some schedule abnormalities clearly meant that Dan Ellis and Jack Campbell played 4 of 5 on the road and against 5 teams that are all in top form, but during that stretch the Goals against were at 4.4 per game and the save percentage was under 88% at nearly 36 shots against per game. During that stretch, Dallas gathered just 2 of a possible 10 points and sunk to the bottom of the league.
Now, again, not all opponents and stretches are created equal, and Kari has had the benefit of playing a series of teams that you would certainly define as “beatable” and Dan Ellis faced a gauntlet of powers. But, the play on the ice seems to tell quite a story. Lehtonen is worth his contract and backups are backups for a reason. If there was no drop-off whatsoever, you would greatly question the wisdom of the trade and deal handed down by the Joe Nieuwendyk regime. Instead, it is maybe his crowning achievement and something he can be proud of.
Kari is a player that keeps things simple and fundamentally sound, but is perhaps best known for his consistency and like I said earlier, his ability to avoid sabotaging himself. We have seen enough untimely bad goals to know what they look like, and Kari is seldom to blame for gifts distributed or allowed.
And yet, despite playing his 5th season in Dallas – all of which you would say he has certainly played at levels ranging from acceptable to fantastic – he continues to be disregarded by many publications around the league when they decide to rank the goalies. I seldom see him ranked even in the top half of the league, let alone in the Top 10 or a viable candidate for the all-star spots or consideration in that highest class of netminder.
But, I have never felt that this squad needed a better goaltender since he arrived. He has been everything that was advertised and when I see him ranked 21st in somebody’s goalie rankings, I first consider how unimportant lists like these are but then I feel badly for a guy like him who does so much with so little recognition.
In the end, goalies are treated like QBs, in that wins and post-season accomplishments are hung around their neck, even when that logic is silly and unreasonable in many cases. Lehtonen cannot help that the shelves were not restocked in front of him and that the team was going through a rough patch with payroll and ownership. He can only control what he can control, and you know, he has done a great job of doing that.
Kari has been money during his stretch here and I can assure you that he single-handedly improves their odds of winning every time he steps on the ice. He is a special player with a very unique skill set and yet remains largely unnoticed.
#19 best goaltender in the NHL is what they say.
Up north he doesn’t get the love he deserves. Heck, New Jersey has both goaltenders ranked above Kari in 2013. Amazing.
But, here, if you aren’t noticing him, then you clearly aren’t paying attention.