Best defensive forward: Lehtinen

They jokingly call Dallas Stars winger Jere Lehtinen, "the machine," but the nickname rings true.

Originally Published: December 23, 2003
By Kevin Woodley | The Hockey News

The Hockey News solicited votes from 42 journalists to come up with "The Best of Everything in Hockey." One correspondent from each NHL city and 12 national media members were asked to vote on various disciplines for active players and executives. In addition, they cast ballots on NHL franchise-related off-ice departments. Five points were awarded for first-place votes, three for second and one for third. The accompanying story and voting results is one of more than 40 areas featured. The complete results can be found in "The Best of Everything in Hockey" magazine. Also featured in the publication are all-time bests from each of the 30 organizations and a fan vote on the top 10 favorite players from each franchise.

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Best Defensive Forward
Player, Team Votes
1. Jere Lehtinen, Dal 140
2. John Madden, NJ 138
3. Michael Peca, NYI 31
4. S. Rucchin, Ana 17
5. Wes Walz, Min 16
6. S. Fedorov, Ana 12
7. T. Marchant, Clb 8
8. Mike Modano, Dal 4
9. Brian Rolston, Bos 4
10. Kris Draper, Det 2

They jokingly call Dallas Stars winger Jere Lehtinen, "the machine," but the nickname rings true.

Like a machine, Lehtinen's secret for defensive success is consistency. He is the choice of The Hockey News' NHL correspondents, plus hockey experts, as the best defensive forward in the league.

"He does the same things over and over and over and he always does them right," said Dallas coach Dave Tippett.

Lehtinen has won three Selke Trophies and earned the title of best defensive forward in the NHL through his consistency. While it's not easy to replicate his game, it is easy to dissect it.

"I break it down into four parts," Tippett said. "Positioning of his body and ability to play angles, anticipation of the offensive play, plain and simple hard work and then very underrated puck skills."

Let's take it one at a time.

First, Lehtinen is a master of using his body to cut off passing lanes and also at pushing players into areas they don't want to go. He learned the style under former Stars' coach Ken Hitchcock's "steering forecheck."

"He was a natural at it in that he just has a way of moving people to where he wants them," Hitchcock said. "He understood the system and he had a lot of great coaching in Finland."

The next is anticipation of the offensive play. Lehtinen simply has a nose for the puck, he watches plays develop and understands the thinking of the opposition. If you watch him closely during a game, he'll not only break up a play in the neutral zone, but also come off his man in the defensive zone to catch an open trailer who has slipped past a teammate.

"It's a gift, really," Tippett said. "Some people can read and anticipate the offensive play like (Wayne) Gretzky did. Lehts does it on defense."

The third reason is difficult to quantify. Lehtinen is a workoutaholic and usually the Dallas player in the best condition. He blows away tests for least amount of body fat and best VO2 score, and that translates to an ability to dog the play at 100 per cent deep into a shift.

"You'll watch him and he'll just wear other guys down," Hitchcock said. "He simply doesn't give up on a shift and that results in a lot of turnovers."

Lehtinen said he played bandy as a kid to build up his endurance. Listed at 6-feet, 200 pounds, he plays larger because he has a low center of gravity and extremely strong legs.

"He wins a lot of battles along the boards," Hitchcock said. Last, but not least, Tippett contends Lehtinen's biggest strength might be that he has tremendous hands and feet.

"A puck might seem like it's up for grabs, but most of the time Lehts will come out with it," Tippett said. "He has a lot more skill than most people give him credit for."

Lehtinen scored 31 goals last season and the rest of the league is starting to take notice.

"It was just a pleasure to coach him last year," Tippett said. "You never know a player until you go through an entire season and he might have impressed me as much as anyone last year. I'll tell you this, whenever I needed a line to get going, I just put him on it.''

Lehtinen's idol growing up was fellow Finn Jari Kurri, whose offensive skills were superb, but he says he didn't think he could play that style. "I tried, of course, but you have to do what you are good at," he said. To him, it's that simple.

New Jersey Devils center John Madden, who finished second in the balloting for best defensive forward, also topped a separate list of the NHL's top 10 grinders.

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