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Top 100 Goalies: The very close, but no cigar guys

Lehtonen is one of 34 goalies to win more than 300 games, but his overall body of work relegates him to the group of men who finished just outside the top 100.

Hey, somebody had to finish 101st on this list. But this is just too good. Is Kari Lehtonen finishing one spot out of the top 100 NHL goalies of all-time not the most Kari Lehtonen thing ever? Wait, it gets better. Guess who finished No. 102? Tommy Salo, that’s who. You can’t make this stuff up.

First, some perspective. Being one of the 786 men who have stood in an NHL goal crease for at least one regular-season game is an enormous accomplishment, one that puts the occupant in the 99.999th percentile of those who have strapped on goalie pads. And to be in the top 15 percent of the best goaltenders the world has ever seen is an even more monumental feat. And really, Lehtonen would actually have the last laugh on us mooks, what with his career earnings of $49.85 million and all. That should do a good job of helping him sleep at night.

When Lehtonen looks back on his NHL career – one we’re assuming is over based on the fact he was an unsigned UFA when camps opened – he’ll probably do so much in the same way people regard You’ve Got Mail. Good, but not great. To be sure, 649 games with 310 wins and a .912 save percentage is nothing to scoff at, but the fact he played only 19 playoff games and had an .887 SP in the post-season doesn’t help him, not one bit. That, and having a penchant late in his career for letting in the worst goals at the most inopportune times possible. Perhaps the scouting report on The Hockey News website sums up Lehtonen’s career best: “Talented but inconsistent.”

It wasn’t supposed to be that way, of course. When Lehtonen was taken second overall in 2002, that made him the highest-drafted European goalie in NHL history and the first Finnish-born player to be selected that high. He had come off a season in Finland where he was not only the best stopper – an award he won again the next season – but was also playoff MVP. The problem was it was the Atlanta Thrashers who were doing the picking, and they were in the midst of doing a remarkable job of derailing the careers of their young players. In fact, of the 31 goalies who played at least 150 games in the first four full years of Lehtonen’s career, only Tomas Vokoun (31.54) faced more shots per game than the 31.28 per appearance Lehtonen faced. But Lehtonen actually stood tall for the Thrashers. Only 13 of those goalies had better save percentages than the .911 he posted.

By the time he was traded to Dallas, Lehtonen was beginning to be plagued by back troubles. Still, he was good (but not great) for Dallas for the better part of a decade, losing the No. 1 job to Ben Bishop after a disastrous 2016-17 for Lehtonen and the team. He played only 17 playoff games for the Stars in nine seasons. And while he wasn’t the only reason the Stars became perennial underachievers, he didn’t deliver the kind of lights-out goaltending they needed to make the playoffs and go far.

But that’s a shining legacy compared to the man who is No. 102 on the list. Salo, who will best be remembered for (in no particular order) letting in one of the most deflating goals in Swedish hockey history, being caught mouthing the words to a Christmas carol on the jumbotron during a game and being made to cry by New York Islanders GM Mike Milbury during an arbitration hearing, well, that’s probably enough to keep him off the list right there. But again, he’s likely not worried about it since he took home almost $20 million in career earnings.

If you really want to feel sorry for someone, Jake Forbes at 103 is a guy who deserves your sympathy. He played 13 years in the NHL for a bunch of bad teams and was denied a Stanley Cup with the Toronto St. Pat’s in 1921-22 when he became the first player in league history to sit out an entire season over a contract dispute. Then it happened again in 1925 when the Hamilton Tigers, who were Cup favorites after finishing first overall, went on strike on the eve of the playoffs and were suspended for the post-season by league president Frank Calder.

And speaking of guys who were robbed, would Dwayne Roloson be at No. 105 had he not been hurt in the first game of the Cup final with Edmonton in 2006? That forced the Oilers to go with Ty Conklin, who lost Game 1 with 32 seconds left on one of the most egregious mistakes in Cup final history. Riding Jussi Markkanen for the remainder of the final, the Oilers extended the series to seven games after falling into a 3-1 deficit. Frank McCool, who was the NHL’s rookie of the year and a Stanley Cup winner in 1945 after playing U.S. college hockey and serving in the Second World War, is No. 106 on the list, largely because ulcers ended his career after only two seasons.

So, as you can see, luck has a lot to do with a goalie’s career legacy. Lehtonen gets drafted by a better team, Roloson doesn’t blow out his knee in the final, Forbes accepts a contract and McCool doesn’t get ulcers, and this list might look a lot different. And even though this is obviously a subjective exercise, we’re pretty sure we got it right, because we used a panel of 10 people, six THN staffers and four people whose historical knowledge of goaltenders is impeccable.

So, Kari, there’s no shame in finishing 101st. It really was a toss-up between you and Daren Puppa.


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