12 October 2008

Kari grows up

Not sure how I missed this earlier... SORRY!

Lehtonen ready to prove he’s grown up

By Jeff Schultz
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

If acceptance is the first step to recovery, maybe it also can be the first step toward prominence.

Kari Lehtonen came into the NHL as a talented goalie more than three years ago. He is still a talented goalie, just not a great one. Granted, there are issues associated with being the Thrashers’ starting goalie. Psychotic episodes, for example. But there have been questions about Lehtonen’s work ethic, mental toughness and a seeming tendency to assume that talent alone would carry him to success.

There’s no reason to guess any more. Lehtonen acknowledges everybody else was right. He needed to grow up.

“I got here with just talent,” he said with remarkable candidness the other day. “It feels great, you know, when it’s like you don’t have to do that much to get here. But that doesn’t last long. You have to work hard. Sometimes I think it’s easier for the players who have to go the other route — when you have to work harder and you’re a late bloomer. You already know it’s not going to be a walk in the park. I know that now.”

The Thrashers open the season Friday. It will be Lehtonen’s fourth full season. He is playing on only a one-year contract. They call that a crossroads.

Even Lehtonen acknowledges, “I wasn’t in a position to go in there and say, ‘I want 10 years. I want this and that.’ I know that I have to have a solid year.”

Even with an improved defensive corps, expectations for the Thrashers are generally low. The team is young and thin at forward, with little to support the talents of Ilya Kovalchuk. They have one of the league’s lowest payrolls.

The team’s best hope? That Lehtonen makes up for the roster’s deficiencies, which means becoming the difference-maker he was expected to be when he was drafted in 2002.

Goalies always have been the X-factor in hockey. It’s just more pronounced on some teams than others. Lehtonen was drafted second overall. He had size, skill and potential, connected qualities that had eluded his Atlanta predecessors. He was projected as a star, and former Thrashers coach Bob Hartley still says, “He has the potential to be one of the top five goalies in the league.”

But he isn’t. His career numbers (2.82 goals-against average, .913 saves percentage) are solid, especially given he plays behind one of the league’s most porous defenses. But extended absences with groin strains have led to questions about his strength and conditioning, and general goofiness — even dying his hair blue on the eve of the Thrashers’ first playoff series two years ago — illustrated what already had been suspected by teammates and Hartley: Lehtonen needed to grow up.

Hartley was tough on the goalie. Lehtonen didn’t always take it well. Funny how hindsight can be educational. Lehtonen now acknowledges Hartley was right all along.

“When I got here, I thought it would be a little easier,” he said. “Here was this guy [Hartley] who was — not yelling at me, but talking to me about everything. I was like, ‘What’s going on here?’ It was hard. For the first time in my life, somebody was tough on me, pushing me every day. That took awhile to get used to. But now I realize that’s what I really needed.”

Asked if he held any grudges against Hartley, Lehtonen laughed and said, “Not at all. I don’t think I would’ve gotten better if he didn’t do that.”

Hartley believes the pressure of coming into the NHL so young was difficult on Lehtonen, adding: “It’s not as hard for a young forward to be a stud. But it’s hard for a young goalie because there’s so much pressure.

“I would have Patrick Roy talk to Kari two or three times a year about things like how to bounce back from a loss. I told Kari many times, ‘You have the same tools as Patrick Roy. What you need to work on is your mental strength.’

“We learn in life that words don’t carry the same weight as actions. But Lehtonen is saying all the right things.

“It hasn’t gone the way I wanted,” he said. “But I still have many years left and hopefully I can take my game to the next level. I think I grew a lot.

“Skill-wise, I think there’s 100 goalies who can play here. But the top guys, whether they come to the rink after a loss or a win, they have the same mind-set. They’re not thinking about the past, they’re thinking about the next game. So much of it is mental.”

Reality hits at the age of 24.
Listen, here's what I want everyone to take out of this article. Kari made it to the NHL, to the Thrashers, on NOTHING BUT PURE TALENT. Not on discipline, not on conditioning, not on necessarily working his ass off (rakkastan sinua, Karppa!!), but strictly on the innate talent he possesses. You don't often hear the story of the guy who just happened to be REALLY GOOD at playing goal, even if he was half-assing it, and made it to the NHL anyway.  Actually, hardly ever. So image, just take a brief moment to dream about how breathtakingly awesome Kari will be with that extra effort and work.

Also, don't forget all those cans of Winning he's drinking now!

1 comment:


I love your blogs, looking forward to future updates.