Stars still well squared away in goal
DALLAS -- When the Dallas Stars open the shortened, 48-game version of the 2013 NHL season on Saturday night against Phoenix at American Airlines Center, they will do so with a familiar face in goal in veteran Kari Lehtonen.
Of course, the Finnish netminder has firmly established himself as Dallas' No. 1 option between the pipes ever since he came over in a trade with Atlanta in 2010. And except for an occasional injury here and there, he has been the man in goal for the Stars ever since.
Lehtonen, now 29, comes off a season where he started 59 games, going 32-22-4 with a 2.33 goals-against-average and four shutouts. Of course, he did miss a stretch of the season in November and December 2011 with a groin injury, which ironically enough was suffered against these same Coyotes, but other than that stretch off the ice it was pretty much smooth sailing for him last season.
Stars fans remember that while he was off the ice last season, it was the emergence of rookie Richard Bachman, who was called up from the Texas Stars of the American Hockey League to serve as Andrew Raycroft, then Lehtonen's backup, for as long as Kari was unable to play.
But a funny thing happened when "Bachs" came up and got a chance to play. Raycroft didn't play well at all, leaving the door open for the young rookie and he performed so well that by the time Lehtonen returned in December, it was Raycroft heading to the AHL and not Bachman.
However, Bachman now finds himself in Cedar Park after the Stars sent him down on Friday. That leaves another rookie, Christopher Nilstorp, a 28-year-old netminder out of Sweden whom the Stars signed last summer as Lehtonen's backup for the time being.
In 28 games in the AHL this season, Nilstorp has definitely shown he's NHL ready, going 16-10-4 with a 2.13 GAA and four shutouts. Given those numbers and how much he's impressed everyone in the Dallas organization ever since he joined the club less than a year ago, it's not surprising to hear Stars goaltending coach Mike Valley rave about the young Swede.
"A mature, smart goaltender that I believe can compete at this level. He's adjusted well in the American League. He's played close to 30 games and he's been excellent," Valley said. "Again, he's 28-years-old so he's kind of gone through his ups and downs. He's learned some things, but a sharp, sharp goaltender."
Before Bachman was sent to the AHL, there was some thought that the Stars might carry three goaltenders at least to start the season and Dallas second-year head coach Glen Gulutzan even said as much after a practice earlier this week.
However, there is no doubt that Lehtonen is the man between the pipes in Big D and will continue to hold that designation. Before last season, Valley noticed a big difference in Kari because he had gotten married, which had allowed him to leave everything at the ice, good or bad, after a game.
And in this recently-concluded off-season, the affable Finn became a father for the first time and the man who works with him closer than any other member of the Dallas coaching staff has definitely noticed another change for the good in the club's top goaltender.
"Of course it does help you. You have other things to do when you get home. You've got to be a dad. You've got to help out and that's a good thing. He's extremely focused," Valley said. "He's always one of the first guys at the rink. You see how his preparation is. He has the ability once he steps in the doors, everything else disappears. It's strictly hockey. Hopefully he has that ability when he leaves the rink too. Now he can just think about being a family dad. Just like anything he does, he lives in the now. Whatever he's doing at that time is what he's focusing on. It's an unbelievable way to approach your life."
Such focus is definitely a good thing, especially considering that keeping Lehtonen healthy and upright for the bulk of a 48-game season, where he could start between 40 and 42 games, could prove crucial if the Stars are to snap a playoff drought that has now reached four straight years.