The biggest question concerning Jere Lehtinen this season is: How do the Stars use him?
Lehtinen made a leap of faith by coming back to the Stars for a significant pay cut (dropping from $4 million to $1.5 million base with $1 million in potential bonuses), so he has made it clear that he wants to finish out his career in Dallas and that he understands his recent injury history has deteriorated his value.
And that, I think tells a lot about Lehtinen. You are going to get all of the commitment he has when he is healthy.
The problem is how do you make the most of that commitment and how do you keep him healthy?
Lehtinen has played 48 games in each of the past two seasons, with several injuries taking him out. There are groins and sports hernias and shoulders, and he still wears a knee brace. He also showed a significant drop in scoring from season to season. In 2007-08, Lehtinen played on a line with Brenden Morrow and Mike Ribeiro and had 15 goals and 22 assists (37 points) in 48 games. Last season, that line never got clicking because of injuries to Morrow and Lehtinen, and he finished with eight goals and 16 assists (24 points) in 48 games.
That said, he squeezed the majority of that scoring (six goals, 15 assists) into a 25-game stretch in the mid-season and the Stars went 16-7-2 in that stretch, so it's clear what a healthy Lehtinen means to the team.
First of all, Lehtinen still is one of the best defensive forwards on the team and cleans up all sorts of mistakes for his linemates. That's crucial to someone like Ribeiro or Morrow, as it allows them to lean a little more toward the offensive side, and take a few more chances.
Second, Lehtinen is still one of the best players at digging the puck, controlling the puck and keeping the puck in the offensive zone. Again, that's huge for linemates, as it creates more offensive opportunities and reduces the amount of time they have to spend in the defensive zone.
And third, Lehtinen is one of the few right-handed forwards the team has at this time.
So, when you consider all of those things, most coaches will probably put Lehtinen on the right wing of the first line with Morrow and Ribeiro and also put him out on the first power play unit. He's also still very high in the penalty kill rotation. That means you're looking at the same 19 minutes a game he has played for most of his career (he had exactly 19:00 a game last season) and you have to wonder if that workload will wear him down.
I know reducing workload been a similar theme in these summer player profiles with Mike Modano, Stephane Robidas and even Marty Turco, but I still believe this is a key component with Lehtinen.
Should you just use him as a key cog and hope for health or should you reduce his minutes and believe that will give you a better chance to keep him healthy?
The quickest way to reduce the minutes would probably be to replace him on the first power play unit with Loui Eriksson. The switch would allow Lehtinen (3:21 per game in PP time) some time to rest, and would allow Eriksson the chance to continue his development. When you consider that Eriksson potted 36 goals last season and had just seven on the power play, it's probably time for him to become a bigger factor in the man advantage.
That said, Ribeiro loves having a right-handed shot when he's dishing the puck. It gives him more options, and he seems to know how to find Lehtinen in just the right spot.
It's a tough question.
That would lead one to ponder if Lehtinen's minutes on the PK should be reduced. Lehtinen led all forwards in PK time per game at 2:15. The reason is because he's the best on the team at it. But it's probably time that players such as Eriksson, Steve Ott, Toby Petersen and Ray Sawada start taking more of those minutes. Mike Modano and Lehtinen will probably still see time on the kill, but I wonder if the amount of forwards in the PK rotation should be increased, and that Modano and Lehtinen should be moved down the rotation.
I think Lehtinen is a tremendous asset to the Stars when healthy. And while there may be no clear cut way to keep him healthy, I think you have to at least try a few things.