For the first time since 1996-97, somebody other than Ed Belfour or Marty Turco will start the majority of the games in net for the Stars, and Lehtonen, the oft-injured, former No. 2 overall pick is the man that's penciled in to be the guy. And while Turco's play had declined a bit in recent years, that's a lot of uncertainty in a position that's been relatively stable for the better part of the past 13 seasons.
But what's the biggest concern with Lehtonen? His performance, or his inability to stay on the ice?
Acquired late last season in a trade with the Thrashers for prospect Ivan Vishnevsky and a fourth-round pick (and eventually signed to a three-year contract extension), Lehtonen has been fairly productive -- when healthy -- posting a save percentage north of .910 in each of the past four seasons, all while playing behind a less-than-stellar defense in Atlanta. During even-strength situations, for example, he's stopped over 92 percent of the shots he's faced since the start of the 2006-07 season, which is definitely respectable and rivals the numbers put up by some of the highest-paid netminders across the NHL.
The issue, of course, is the fact he's never been able to play a full season in the NHL, fighting a seemingly never-ending string of injuries. During his six-year career he's played over 50 games in a single season just one time (66 games in 2006). Should he be forced to miss another 15 or 20 games (which has been a common occurrence the past couple of seasons) the Stars have little in the way of reasonable options behind him. Brent Krahn, a career minor leaguer to this point after being a first-round pick by the Calgary Flames in 2000, had a nice run with Dallas' AHL team last season, winning 17 of his 21 regular season starts. Also in the mix is veteran journeyman Andrew Raycroft, who inked a two-way contract this summer. In other words: it's pretty much Lehtonen or bust.
Another point of concern for Dallas will be its dreadful penalty killing from last season (Defending Big D had a great breakdown of it earlier this week) which ranked 27th in the NHL, killing just 77 percent of its penalties. And since the old cliché says that your goalie is your best and most important penalty killer, it's worth looking at how Lehtonen has performed when down a man over the past four seasons. The ranking is among goalies that started at least 10 games per season.
Obviously, that leaves a bit to be desired. Given that the Dallas defense is, heading into the season, a middle-of-the-pack group, though, one with the potential to improve (a lot of young guys like Trevor Daley, Nicklas Grossman, Mark Fistric and Matt Niskanen coming off a transitional year with a new head coach) the success -- or failure -- of Lehtonen is going to play a huge part in making or breaking the Stars season.
YOUNG FORWARDS READY TO BUST OUT
While the defense is young and the goaltending is situation is full of question marks, the strength of the Stars roster is most definitely in its group of forwards, which includes veterans like the smooth playmaking of Brad Richards and the seemingly always underrated talents of Brenden Morrow.
Along with them is an impressive collection of young wingers, including Loui Eriksson, James Neal and Jamie Benn. When you add in Mike Ribeiro and the toughness/annoyance/tenacity of Steve Ott, the Stars are actually quite deep up front and have playoff caliber forwards. And the good news for them is some of these guys, like Neal and Benn, have plenty of room to get better and improve. As of Wednesday morning, Neal, currently a restricted free agent, is still without a contract, while there's still been some debate among Dallas fans as to what the contract situation has done to the expectations for the 23-year-old forward this season.
LOW RISK, POTENTIAL REWARD
Two years ago Dallas took a dip into the European free agency pool and came away with highly skilled forward Fabian Brunnstrom. There was a great deal of hype around him when coming out of Sweden, and after recording a hat trick in his NHL debut the legend seemed to grow. Unfortunately, he's scored just 16 goals in the ensuing 98 games and hasn't really lived up to the hype that was built up prior to the 2008 season. That doesn't mean signing him wasn't worth the risk. He is, after all, still a skillful (albeit one-dimensional) forward that could be of some use. And for a team like Dallas that's currently working against a self-imposed cap you need to take some chances in the European free agent market and on the NHL's scrap heap with the hope of catching the proverbial "lightning in a bottle."
The recent tryout contract given to former 50-goal scorer Jonathan Cheechoo is one such example, as is the signing of Swiss defenseman Severin Blindenbacher, who like Brunnstrom, was signed out of Europe as a free agent after playing in Switzerland and Sweden over the past decade. Whether or not he even makes the team is certainly up for debate, as he could simply be AHL filler for the Texas Stars, but the fact he has some offensive ability certainly works in his favor. The Stars' defense was one of the least productive units in the league last season in terms of points. Blindenbacher has performed well for the Swiss National team in recent years (at the 2010 Olympics he had a goal and an assist in five games, while averaging close to 22 minutes of ice-time per game).