Lehtonen Becomes Second Finn to Reach 300 Wins as Adjustment to Backup Role Continues
Dallas Stars netminder Kari Lehtonen became just the second Finnish-born goaltender to reach 300 wins on Wednesday, following the Stars’ 5-2 win over New York Islanders.
Lehtonen joined former San Jose Sharks and Calgary Flames goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff on the list of 33 goaltenders to reach 300 career wins in his 624th NHL appearance, reaching the milestone a mere five years after Kiprusoff himself established the new record among goaltenders from the European nation.
The 34-year-old Lehtonen has posted a relatively healthy .913 save percentage so far this season, but now finds himself in the backup role in Texas following the arrival of Ben Bishop during the summer – a change Lehtonen admits he is still adjusting to.
“I don’t know what’s hardest, it’s just a little different,” Lehtonen told InGoal Magazine.
“Sometimes you feel like you practice, practice, practice, practice; but also when I get to play I get a little bit more excited about it too.”
Kari Lehtonen (624 GP) surpassed Miikka Kiprusoff (623 GP) for the most appearances by a Finnish-born goaltender in NHL history, while also joining Kiprusoff as the only Finnish netminders to reach the 300-win milestone. #NHLStats pic.twitter.com/Aygm3jssdL
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) December 14, 2017
Drafted 2nd overall by the Atlanta Thrashers in 2002, Lehtonen was once one of the most exciting goaltending prospects in the world.
He has had trouble with injuries and consistency throughout his career, though, culminating in the Stars management team opting to sign Bishop to a 6-year, $29.5 million deal during the most recent offseason.
“It’s been a little different, but still you feel like part of the team, cheering on the other guys now maybe more than before, when you were always in there focusing on your own game.” Lehtonen said.
Having played 59 games or more in five of his seven full seasons in Dallas (not including the truncated 2012/13 schedule or his injury-riddled 2009/10 campaign), the reduced role has presented different demands on Lehtonen’s game.
“You just have to remind yourself not to jump away from the path you know, or the style you know that works, and that’s hard to do sometimes” the Helsinki native said.
With fewer minutes, practise has become an increasingly important part of Lehtonen’s season as he looks to stay sharp. Still, the veteran is conscious that he must not let bad habits, such as cheating on drills, bleed over into his game:
“Maybe more now I will go out and challenge more than maybe I would do in a game, but you just have to remind yourself it’s not what you would do in a normal situation.
“We have pretty good drills we do, a lot better than what I have become accustomed to before, just from a coach’s standpoint … we do more game like things with ‘Hutch’ (Stars Head Coach Ken Hitchcock) … that helps me with spacing and not being crazy in practice.”
Set to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, Lehtonen does not intend to let last season’s struggles, or his changing role with the Stars, affect him moving forward:
“It can be hard, but that’s my job. It doesn’t help to bitch and complain about it. You have to accept it and make the best of it.”