Monday, October 31, 2011

It's Not Only About the Stats

One of the goalies off to a red hot start this season is Kari Lehtonen (8-1-0, 1.75, .947). Moving to Dallas has rejuvenated Lehtonen's career, and while he obviously won't maintain those lofty numbers for an entire season, the Finnish goalie had a decent year last year and is still only 27 years old. Few people have questioned his talent, but Lehtonen may finally have figured out how to combine that with the hard work and professionalism needed to perform as one of the league's better netminders.

Lehtonen can be used as an example both of the power of statistics and of how other factors can be important beyond the numbers. I touted him for a while prior to his trade to Dallas as a talented NHL goalie who was stuck in a bad situation in Atlanta, based primarily on the strong even strength save percentage results he put up in the early part of his career. However, at the same time observers were pretty much unanimous that Lehtonen was not properly utilizing his talent through a lack of preparation and repeatedly showing up overweight and out of shape, which led to a lot of his injury problems. This year all reports are that Lehtonen has finally put in the off-ice work needed to get into great shape. There is a noticeable difference between what he looks like now and what he looked like when he was playing in Atlanta.

Off-ice training and mental preparation and hours spent on the practice rink working on technique drills are all very important for a top professional goaltender. However, typically goalies who make it to the top levels of the sport have developed the training and work habits they need, especially since for most of them it is a fairly long road to the get to the NHL and if they weren't putting in that time then they would have washed out well before they made it to the show. If everyone is working hard, then it doesn't become much of an advantage for anyone, and it becomes much less likely that a goalie who has been training hard year-round for a number of years will suddenly make a huge leap forward primarily based on those off-ice factors. On the other hand, someone who is very talented but doesn't take the steps to maximize his talent would be a candidate to see his performance improve if he is able to finally put everything together, which may be the case for someone like former second overall pick Kari Lehtonen.

There's always good reason to be skeptical about claims justifying early season success. This is the time of the year where dozens of articles are written by reporters claiming that a good offseason of training is fully responsible for a player's 30% shooting percentage through 10 games, and is the reason why that player is going to hit the 40 or 50 goal mark for the first time in their careers. Needless to say, those players always regress significantly by season's end, as luck was almost certainly a bigger factor than anything that happened in a weight room or on a practice rink. On the other hand, we shouldn't completely dismiss the human factors either. I'm still far from convinced that Kari Lehtonen will end up in Vezina contention, but it will be interesting to see how long he can sustain his sizzling start. At the very least there appears to be a good chance that he is headed for a career year in 2011-12.

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