The Long Awaited Debut

Ok, I couldn’t wait any longer to write this one.

In a season where the playoff race officially ended Thursday night for Atlanta, and in reality quite a bit before that, there have still definitely been meaningful games down the stretch for the Thrashers. And those games are, of course, the introduction of Kari Lehtonen to the NHL (and vice-versa). So far, so very good.

When Marc-Andre Fleury made his debut as an 18 year old at the beginning of the season, there was a boatload of fanfare running throughout the entire NHL community. The hype was raucous, and it was everywhere. And with very good reason, the kid definitely has the goods. When Lehtonen made his debut, there was very little of that (or none to be precise). Which is very fitting for both young men; Fleury will draw roars with his acrobatic style, Lehtonen will cause no such frenzy with his laid-back style. In the end, both are pretty much a lock to make their mark on the NHL. But for now, let’s get back to Lehtonen’s first forays into the league.

Thus far: 3 games, 3 wins, 1.33 GAA, .947 Save%, 1 shutout

Not bad at all for a goaltender who started playing on North American rinks only six months ago, playing behind one of the more porous defenses in the league. And before you say anything, I know that it’s only been a few games (and not against the most stellar competition around either). But with young goalies like this, it’s more about how they handle the game and themselves against the elite competition that the NHL provides (which I shall elaborate on forthwith). I think it’s safe to say that Lehtonen has handled all that very well thus far. The stats are just a bonus.

After his first victory against Florida, I saw a comment from an amateur scout saying that Lehtonen looked somewhat nervous in his first game compared to his normal demeanor. I found that rather fascinating since it looked to me as though he was very cool and calm (which once again shows I know little of what to look for in addressing the talent and characteristics of prospects). In the following games against Washington and Florida again, I saw what the scout was alluding to. It’s best described in a name given to Lehtonen by Finnish fans who had watched him play the previous two years, the Ice Man (insert “Top Gun” reference if you must).

In only a few games, he has already shown that he is very fundamentally sound. Very quick pads, excellent lateral movement, very solid positionally, economy of motion, etc. On top of that he has already shown the calmness I mentioned above. He doesn’t over-commit to the shot, and on the rare occasion that he does, he has the agility and athleticism to make the save.

But there are also intangibles.

The first of which was seen in the Capitals game after Ronald Petrovicky accidentally knocked the puck in behind Lehtonen. As Petrovicky was laying in the crease beside Lehtonen no doubt feeling shame, the rookie gave him a tap and told him not to worry about it. Both Petrovicky and Lehtonen both played well after that, not letting it affect them at all. A veteran move by a kid in his second NHL game.

The second was mentioned by the Thrashers announcers a few times already, and Panthers coach John Torchetti alluded to this in the post-game. Lehtonen is big, intimidating, very calm, and an excellent fundamental goaltender. That translates into something that can’t always be seen, but it is felt by his teammates and his opposition. A presence, a feeling that it will probably take something special to score on this kid. Just so you know, that’s not my take on it. Scouts, coaches, GMs and players alike have said this about Lehtonen for the last couple years. I wrapped it in my own words, but the sentiment comes from those who know a hell of a lot more about it than I do.

You’ll have to pardon me for the length, I am a bit excited. Can you blame me? There were great expectations for him and thus far, Lehtonen has not disappointed. I am very much looking forward to him in goal for a long time.

I can already see it now. Dozens of signs in Philips Arena in the coming years, written on them;

Kari “Let-None-In”

17 Responses to The Long Awaited Debut

  1. Lint07 says:

    No doubt, the kid is gifted. It’s going to be interesting to compare both the progression of Fleury and him.

    Lehtonen along with Heatley & Kovalchuk will lead the Thrashers to a very bright future, starting right next season. I wouldn’t even be surprised to see Atlanta in the playoffs next year!

  2. Kashin says:

    I immediately saw the headline of the article and it was a no brainer about who this about. From what I read this guy is the real deal. Out of Luongo, dipietro fluery or any 21 under goalie to come into the league the past couple years, lehtonen is the most ready by far.

    The team missed with stefen but they were huge with heatly and kovulchuk, this guy could be better then both of them. I thought Nurmminen was a number 1 goalie but they now have a star goalie.

    Is he the number 1 for the last couple games?

  3. cwthrash says:


    Before the Washington tilt, Hartley decided to split the remaining six games between the two. So Nurminen will get the start at Toronto and vs Pittsburgh. Lehtonen will get the final game at Tampa Bay.

    Deserving for Nurminen to start the last home game. He has been great behind an inconsistent defense this year, and the fans know it. Most of them at least, some always hound him for the soft goals he lets in occasionally. He is still our number one. Lehtonen will get that title soon enough, no need to rush it.

    Besides, I believe that he is going back to the AHL for the playoffs. Good to get the sense of a playoff run (North American style), even if it is in the minors. Every little bit helps.

  4. Furlong19 says:

    Next year the thrasher will make the playoffs. I expect them to sign some big names in the offseason and they will probably add some better defence.

  5. kidhenry1 says:

    Lehtonen is a very solid young goalie. His style of play is very similar to Andrew Raycroft in that he is so calm that he often looks almost lazy in playing goal. He has a great future with the Thrashers.

  6. nocuphere says:

    These guys will be playoff bound next year. Not too far from being a legitimate cup contenders in the next 2 to 3 years.

  7. Primis says:

    Both Lehtonen and Ryan Miller (BUF) looked ridiculously-good in net in the AHL this year. Miller’s in a less-desirable spot than Kari though so the transition to the NHL should be a bit easier for Kari.

    One thing to keep in mind though with these young goalies — next year’s rules are going to rattle ALL goalies, and it could shake the goaltending heirarchy in the league a bit. Some goaltenders play better overall if they’re heavily involved in moving and playing the puck, others want nothing to do with that. If they play next season, I’m betting you’ll see some weird, strange goals at the start. It’ll be interesting to see which goalies are shaken by just having to stay in net (or play it out in front of the net, not behind), and which ones won’t care less.

    It’ll also be interesting to see which scouts will wish they hadn’t placed so much emphasis on a goalie’s ability to play the puck so much.

    — Primis.

  8. cwthrash says:

    From what I heard, Lehtonen wasn’t all that much for playing the puck while in Finland. He would play it when there was a need and was good with his limited touches. The European game, or at least the style he chose to play, didn’t emphasize puck handling as much as it does in North America.

    Still, he has spent a good amount of time in the AHL getting used to playing the puck more. But this is the first year where he went to play the puck more than his usual. His transition to less puckhandling (should the new rules dictate it) won’t be as hard, considering he never did it much before this year.

    In the three games so far, he has looked comfortable behind the net. One or two mis-steps but nothing major. Calm and relaxed for him, which fits since that’s the way he handles himself all the time anyways.

  9. cgolding says:

    Assuming the front office doesn’t get stupid down there they have cup potential within five years. They need to get some playoff experience for their young guns, then look out.

    Another thing that is interesting to look for, is that if the NHL can get control of the way the game is played. Like, remove the stupid obstruction everywhere, this team will be absolutely scary with the two snipers they can throw out there. I love watching Ilya play, finally got to see him live this year… sadly had to sit next to a moronic member of our flyer community… by that I mean one of the many whose only ability at viewing talent is whether or not they check hard and are willing to throw a punch at someone for no apparent reason. And basically spouted about how Ilya was a horrible player… these are the people that Clarkie listens to in the crowd waaay too much.

    But a dangerous team is brewing down there, and they just need a lil more time and a few more pieces before they will be something to worry about. Not to mention the Lightning which also have a young talented nucleus…. Florida as well for that matter… In truth, in the next 5 years the Southeast may/probably be the strongest division in the East with that trio of teams down there that are all young with talent throughout their organizations developing.

    Luongo looks to me like he may get half the Vezina’s handed out over the next 10 years if he keeps up his play.

    nevermind the bullox,


  10. cwthrash says:

    Lehtonen still has a lot to prove, but all signs say that he will.

    But I think if their respective teams put a decent defense in front of him and Luongo, those two could be in the running for the Vezina for a very long time.

  11. Tweek says:

    Lehtonen is a good goalie with quick pads but also remember that he has a year or two of maturing on Marc Andre Fluery. They will both be great franchise goalies. I think Lehtonen’s main problem is that he drops into his butterfly way too quickly leaving the upper part of the net too open. He plays the classic butterfly but needs to show a litle more patience. His big frame will really help as well. Marc Andre is the quicker of the two but Kari is more technically sound.

  12. hockeyhead says:

    hannu toivenen (spelling) is a great finn goalie as well. bruins goalie rated 8th by hockeynews overall in young guns category.

  13. cwthrash says:

    Two years playing in the Finnish Elite League has given him an edge on Fleury. This is Lehtonen’s third year playing professionally, whereas Fleury only has part of this season.

    I still think it was a mistake to keep Fleury up as long as the Pens did. He no doubt has the ability to play at this level, but it takes more than ability to make it in the NHL. Your point about maturity is one that just can’t be overlooked. There’s no harm in letting him progress at a normal pace, instead of throwing him into the fire and hope he can take it. But I do think this time back in juniors will help him. Next year, he’ll be a bit older and will have hopefully learned some lessons that needed to be learned when you’re a 19 year old (and I’m thinking more about off-ice lessons than anything else).

    When both of them get some more NHL experience under their belts, I think you’ll see both of them slow down their approach to the position. Having a better knowledge of what they can and can’t do, and what works best for them at this level. They are both very smart and very talented about playing goal, I have little worry about them making adjustments to the NHL. It’s just a matter of time.

  14. Tweek says:

    Being a goalie myself I see two totally different styles from both tenders. Both has even played each other once. In the world juniors against Finland Marc Andre with the flu came in and was able to fend off the Finnish attack long enough for Canada to put a couple past Kari. Both play different styles, when I look at Marc Andre I see a mix of Cujo and Hasek, he also plays a bit of bufferfly but is more of a reflex goalie. Kari on the other hand is exactly like Sean Burke only a lot better. He’s quicker and more agile on his feet. Your basically seeing the two guys of the next generation of goaltenders.

  15. cwthrash says:

    Most definitely two different styles.

    What I’m amazed at is how far along they both are at such an early age. Both still have a lot to learn, as any young player regardless of position does. And there’s little doubt they’ll incorporate that new knowledge into their already impressive skill set. The part that gets me is that many a goaltender takes years to reach the stage these two are already at. I’ve seen so many start to come into their own in their mid 20s, maybe even a little later. You probably know more of the reasons for that than I do.

    I’m highly impressed with these two, as well as some other young ones. Raycroft has done very well, Miller looks to be on the same track. Luongo goes without saying. The list goes on. I don’t know who has been teaching these kids but they damn sure are getting it right.

    And I just had to put this in. There’s another goaltender in the Atlanta system, Michael Garnett. Scouts have liked his progression in the last couple years. Whenever next season starts, he will very likely get his chance to be the number one for Chicago in the AHL. It’s much, much too early to say if he’s NHL material or not, he has a long way to go to prove that. But if he keeps progressing, he has the chance to become a top-notch backup (no way he has the skills to bump off Lehtonen).

  16. cwthrash says:

    Just to add this about Atlanta, if anyone cares.

    The NHL owners approved the sale of the Thrashers today, the last step in finalizing the sale to a group of nine investors (one from Boston, three from Washington and five from Atlanta).

    The group, called the Atlanta Spirit, will officially take control of the Hawks, Thrashers and the operating rights to Philips Arena on Wednesday.

    Thank you and have a nice day.

  17. newsdayAlanHahn says:

    It’s time for Atlanta to work on their Defence and then they will be much better all around.

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