It must be nice to have the problem the Atlanta Thrashers are facing right now – too many NHL goaltenders. It’s a much better quandary than ‘failed power play’ or ‘no team chemistry.’
Nevertheless, the fact the Dirty Birds have two shutouts over NHL royalty (Detroit and Philadelphia) in their past three games with two different netminders posting the goose eggs is something that will need to be addressed once Kari Lehtonen returns from injury.
Lehtonen, who has had two operations on his back this year, is expected to return sometime in early 2010 – perhaps even around New Year’s.
But based on their play this season, neither Ondrej Pavelec nor Johan Hedberg deserve to be moved to make room for Lehtonen, the Finnish national whom Atlanta selected second overall at the 2002 draft.
Pavelec is the key since he’s the young one who has replaced Lehtonen in all aspects and comes with a cheaper cap hit. (Hedberg is perfect as a veteran NHL backup who also provides leadership in the dressing room). Both Pavelec and Lehtonen are restricted free agents in the summer and the Thrashers will only be able to sign one, since Pavelec has made it clear in recent years that he’s sick of being stuck at third on the team’s depth chart.
The fact the Czech netminder has earned Atlanta at least a point in his past five starts and looks to be getting better as time goes on naturally points to one conclusion: Lehtonen is done with the Thrashers.
It’s one of the unpleasant business decisions that professional sports are filled with. Based on Lehtonen’s injury history (which is prodigious, to say the least) and Pavelec’s recent success, the Thrashers will likely bring the Lehtonen along slowly and a conditioning stint with the American League’s Chicago Wolves only makes sense.
So let’s call it late January when Lehtonen is NHL-ready once again. If Atlanta is still humming along (they’re a playoff team right now), GM Don Waddell will have the luxury of possessing a tradeable asset that can be exchanged for depth or whatever need arises in the meantime. Lehtonen’s $3-million stipend may be hefty, but his contract expires this year and any team picking him up two-thirds of the way through the season would only be responsible for about $1 million.
For a playoff bubble team in need of a serviceable goaltender (Detroit, perhaps?), Lehtonen has the capability to catch fire in a contract year and maybe earn a job for next season. No matter which jersey Lehtonen is wearing at the end of the season, his immediate performance will dictate his future. He must play well, or I can easily envision him on a Kontinental League roster soon. Even another injury would doom him to the Hinterlands.
Pavelec wants to be a No. 1 goaltender in the NHL and he is fast proving he has the ability.
This Thrashers team has the offensive depth to succeed on a nightly basis and although the defense gives up a lot of shots (the most in the league on average), the blueline also produces points to help out the netminders. Atlanta currently features 11 players who have already hit double digits in points and Ilya Kovalchuk doesn’t even have to do all the heavy lifting – Rich Peverley currently leads the team in points with 26 in 23 games.
Assuming Pavelec and Hedberg keep up their level of play, Atlanta will head towards the playoffs with a lot of steam and a third NHL goaltender to dangle on the market.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Monday and Wednesday, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his prospect feature, The Hot List appears Tuesdays.
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