Arguably the most value the Dallas Stars have gotten out of a first round pick in the last 20 years is Kari Lehtonen. Since Jarome Iginla in 1995 the most significant first round picks for the Stars have been Brenden Morrow, Matt Niskanen, Steve Ott, Radek Faksa, Val Nichushkin, and Julius Honka with some Jamie Oleksiak, John Erskine, and Mark Fistric thrown in.
Miro Heiskanen should add some luster to that group. Who knows what ends up happening with Nichushkin or Honka or, really, even Faksa. Ott was a fan favorite, but not particularly good. Niskanen, for all he has ended up doing, didn’t do much of it in Dallas.
So, that leaves Morrow as easily the best first round pick the Stars have made since Iginla. They drafted Morrow 21 years ago. When Joe Nieuwendyk (speaking of Iginla) flipped Ivan Vishnevskiy to the Atlanta Thrashers for Lehtonen he pulled value out of what would have otherwise ended up being another wasted first round pick.
It isn’t much of a stretch to see him as the most value they’ve gotten from a first round pick in twenty years. Lehtonen has given the Stars 445 games, including 422 starts with a record of 216-150-50 which is good for a .912 save percentage and 2.63 goals against average.
And now, he appears to be moving on.
Lehtonen has taken a lot of shit in his time in Dallas, but to take a lot of shit in one place you inevitably have to be there for a long time. Lehtonen is second in games played and wins to Marty Turco by about 50. For all the shit he took, he’ll likely finish his Stars career .001 ahead of Turco in save percentage.
The Stars franchise save percentage list is fascinating. For goalies with over 50 games played in Dallas Ben Bishop leads the franchise at .916, followed by Lehtonen at .912. Turco is third at .911 and tied with Roman Turek. Ed Belfour slides in at 5th and .910. You could have given me 25 guesses and the names on this list and I wouldn’t have put them in the correct order before attempt 22 at best.
*It has been determined that Gump Worsley actually leads the franchise in career save percentage. Thanks Erin.
Kari is a complex figure in Stars franchise history. For being around as long as he has Lehtonen hasn’t been involved in many franchise defining moments. He’s been more “moment-adjacent” (at best). The biggest stage of his career in Dallas was game seven against the Blues in 2016 when he gave up three goals on five shots. The main memory I’ll have of Lehtonen is being the primary or split starting goalie for nine years of a decade long stretch of (mostly) franchise futility.
I hate that I feel like that. I know it’s unfair to a player who has 400+ games with the franchise. During my Dark College Period I didn’t watch much hockey so I think Lehtonen is the goalie I’ve seen play the most. And yet, most of my memories are of futility so that futility clouds my thoughts of Lehtonen.
How much of that futility is his fault?
I think of Carey Price putting mediocre Montreal Canadiens teams on his back and dragging them into the playoffs when they otherwise had little business being there. Lehtonen never forced the Stars to ride Eric Nystrom, Radek Dvorak, or Trevor Daley defensively. How is it fair to think less of Lehtonen for not being able to be a superhuman like Price and drag his team kicking and screaming into the playoffs?
I think of someone like Chris Osgood, winner of three Stanley Cup rings with the Detroit Red Wings. No one thinks of him as a God, but you will rarely hear anything negative about him because what’s the point? He has three rings. Clearly he did enough to not ruin three championship caliber teams, and at the end of the day that’s all an elite team really needs. Just don’t burn the house down guy.
Lehtonen’s negatives stand out more because he wasn’t the driver of success or failure throughout most of his time in Dallas. He was always just there.Those guys rarely pull in tenure like Lehtonen did. Those guys don’t often get treated like franchise cornerstones by overzealous front offices. Kari was never a Carey Price or a Sergei Bobrovsky. He’s been paid pretty close to what they’ve made, and that comes with heightened expectations Lehtonen was never going to meet. He was here simply to not burn the house down while being paid like he was well above average. If he makes Antti Niemi money no one bats an eye.
I think in framing the Dallas Stars career of Lehtonen it’s important to keep in mind what was in front of him. Lehtonen never consistently had the team in front of him for him to have a chance to be on a bigger stage (2016 notwithstanding), and he was never a big enough talent to force them to get there either. Lehtonen was a decent goalie who found a home on a team going through their most unsuccessful stretch in franchise history, and because of that longevity he’s going to live on in Stars history for a while.