18 June 2008

Lehtonen has few doubts he'll re-sign

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 06/19/08

Dante Orlando had made the save of his life, and he knew it.

He skated out of the net, puck in glove and headed straight toward his mom, then tossed the puck over the glass and into family history. The frozen piece of rubber had become a unique souvenir.

After all, how many 8-year-olds have saved a shot from an NHL player?

Dante's save came off not just any NHL player, either. That was Thrashers goalie Kari Lehtonen standing in the slot and shooting at Dante's net. Pretty cool, huh?

Lehtonen wasn't wearing pads or a mask on Wednesday at the Thrashers Hockey Camp, and he never used his blocker. The most important piece of equipment he brought onto the ice was a smile, and he wore it throughout the two-hour session. Of the approximately 30 campers, the 24-year-old kid with the $2.2 million salary seemed to be having the most fun. He was relentlessly upbeat, on the ice with the kids and off the ice with reporters.

Leave it to others to worry about who will be the next coach of Atlanta's NHL team, or what players the Thrashers will draft this weekend, or which free agents they will sign in July. When asked about those issues, Lehtonen sounded unconcerned. He said it hurt to miss the playoffs, a point driven home when he watched them on TV, but instead of worrying about the things others should do to solve the team's problems he's focused on the one thing he can do: Make himself a better player.

"Nobody knows what's going on [with the coaching search], but that kind of stuff doesn't really bother me so much," he said.

He becomes a restricted free agent July 1 after making $2.2 million last season, but he spoke as if there's no doubt he'll stay with the Thrashers, with whom he has played three full seasons.

"That's the plan," he said. "This is where I want to play. It feels like home."

He added that his agent would speak with Thrashers general manager Don Waddell at the appropriate time.

Waddell, of course, is busy hiring a coach, and Lehtonen wasn't offering any advice on that subject or making any requests through the media (look, if you're referring to my comment before World's, it was in jest, and presumptuous on my part). His answers to two direct questions on the subject:

• He would like a coach who stresses defense over one who favors a game going up and down the ice.

• He would be happy playing for Thrashers associate coach Brad McCrimmon or Chicago Wolves coach John Anderson, both of whom have coached him and both of whom have interviewed for the job.

Lehtonen was the coach Wednesday, and the players were receptive.

"It was pretty cool. He was really patient," said Josh Mangrum, 16, who got advice from Lehtonen about equipment and technique.

It was Lehtonen's first time on the ice in weeks. He has been doing strength training, and he is running 45 minutes to an hour a day. That's the reason for his latest hairstyle, which makes him look like a private on the third day of boot camp. The man who turned heads by dying his hair blue for the 2007 playoffs is making a very different statement with his hair this summer.

Just a reminder! Photos welcome!

One of the hockey campers asked him why he sometimes gets so angry during games. His answer might be welcome for Thrashers fans hoping for bigger things from their still-young netminder.

"When you get a little older," Lehtonen explained, "it gets a little more serious."

And another possibility!

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