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”