What is the easiest way to push a superstar athlete?
Place a playing-time hungry backup below him on the depth chart to force every ounce of talent out of the starter.
Dallas Stars goaltender Kari Lehtonen now has not one but three backup goaltenders who fit that billing.
On Monday, Stars general manager Jim Nill signed former Toronto Maple Leaf goalie Jussi Rynnas to a two-year, one-way contract a week after signing goaltender Anders Lindback on the first day of free agency.
The organization also has Jack Campbell, its goaltender of the future who was drafted 11th overall in 2010, waiting his turn in Cedar Park.
This kind of overpopulation is a great problem to have, Stars goalie coach Mike Valley said.
“We’re looking at our top four,” Valley said. “They all have fantastic attitudes. Nobody is intimidated by the situation. I talked to all four of the guys yesterday, and everybody has the attitude that they’re just going to come in here and do their job.”
Naturally, the starting spot is Lehtonen’s to have after he finished seventh in the league with 33 wins and a .919 save percentage in his fifth season with the Stars.
But Lehtonen also finished first in the league in games played, 65 out of 82, and first in minutes played at 3,804.
With that much ice time alone, Lehtonen could use a reliable backup that gives the skaters in front of him confidence, but it’s really the work Lehtonen puts in off the ice that makes days off even more important.
“What a lot of people don’t know is that Kari is a guy that shows up three hours before practice and three hours before a game,” Valley said. “He’s the first guy here taping his stick. He puts so much into it mentally and emotionally every day that when he does finally get a day off, it’s very relaxing to him because he can completely unwind.”
Valley said the organization is looking for a young goaltender with a hunger for starting playing time and something to prove.
As of last week, Lindback, with four years of NHL experience with the Nashville Predators and the Tampa Bay Lightning, was set to be that guy.
Valley was working with Nashville’s organization when Lindback was drafted by the Predators in 2008. Standing at 6-foot-6, Lindback has all the tools to be a top-tier goaltender in the NHL, Valley said.
“What I like most about him is his work ethic is unbelievable,” Valley said. “That’s something. He’s so determined. When I talked to him before we assigned him, he basically said he’s got something to prove.”
Then came the Rynnas signing Monday.
Rynnas saw action in three games for the Toronto Maple Leafs and spent three seasons with the Toronto Marlies of the AHL. Struggles adapting to the North American game and life away from his home of Finland forced the 27-year-old to return where he logged a 28-5-7 record for Karpat of the Finnish Elite League.
“He has a burning desire to show that he can be an NHL guy and not only an NHL guy but a top NHL guy,” Valley said.
Finally, Campbell will have a shot during training camp, but Nill said after the Lindback signing that he would prefer to see Campbell playing than sitting as a backup.
“I told Jack at the end of this season after we won the Calder Cup if you come in and show that you’re ready to push to play 30-something guys, you’ll make life hard for us,” Nill said. “That’s good. If not, I want him playing.
“He’s a young kid. He’s got to be playing games. I’m not worried about Jack. He knows the situation. He knows he’s got to play. This just adds depth to your organization. You can never have enough depth.”
As Stars’ development camp began Tuesday at StarCenter Frisco, six goaltenders are starting the process, now in an infantile state, to prove to the organization they can be the goalie of the future.
When Stars’ training camp opens in Fort Worth in late September, the opposite side of that life cycle will be demonstrated in full force as four goaltenders with a chip on their shoulders contend for two spots to open the 2014-15 season.
“It’s a good problem to have when you have four goalies that are kind of all the same,” Valley said.