Point/Counterpoint with Aaron & Tim: On Trading Kari Lehtonen

POINT: Trade Kari Lehtonen

 

1) It's Not Me, It's You.

"Right now, he's not in the mix. Saying he's No. 1, that's not true. I'll put him in when he's actually ready, but right now the No. 1 job is up for grabs. "

Atlanta Thrashers Head Coach John Anderson

 

"Even when Lehtonen is healthy, he should not assume that the #1 job is his. At this point, I don't think he has earned the right to expect that."

Atlanta Thrashers General Manager Don Waddell

 

84. That's the number of games missed by Kari Lehtonen since 2005. That's an average of twenty one games a year over Kari's four full seasons in Atlanta. The bulk of these games (41) were missed in the 2005-2006 season, the year the Thrashers fell short of the playoffs by two points. I'm not the strongest stat guy here at BWA, but I feel confident stating the outcome of that season would be a little different had Kari not missed half the year.

$9,700,000. That's the total amount of money paid to Kari Lehtonen over four full seasons, almost a quarter of which he hasn't played. To compound the situation, Kari's rehabilitation never seems to go "as planned." Yes, rehab is very much dependent upon unique personal characteristics, but even when it comes to something as routine as starting training camp in shape, Lehtonen seems to struggle. Take the latest injury - back trouble. It's a relatively simple process: get fixed - get rehab - get back in net. Here's the thing: if rehab is going according to plan, why would your GM give even a whiff of frustration with your position and playing situation?

Goalies are known for their "personality quirks", but most manifest themselves in subtle and non-disruptive ways. Well, let's talk about blue hair for just one minute. Having messed around with more than my fair share of hair dye from my late teens to early twenties, I can't exactly bag on the young man too hard. Maybe it was more the attention paid to the blue hair, and not the hair (or it's blueness) itself that caused such a stir. And I am by no means laying the blame for an opening round playoff sweep at the feet of a Smurfy coif. But one question, how often have you seen Martin Brodeur, Roberto Luongo, or even Marty Turco running around the clubhouse with outrageously dyed hair? Now, no one is saying All-Star goalies can't have outrageously dyed hair. But would an All-Star goalie want to have outrageously dyed hair? Before you start ripping me about this one, riddle me this--how would your coworkers perceive you if you walked in one day during a stressful time, trying to land a big account, and you had dyed your hair an unnatural shade of whatever color? How would that effect "office chemistry?" Right or wrong, regardless of intent, actions have consequences.


2) A Change of Scenery/Light a Fire

In July of 2002, the Atlanta Thrashers traded Ruslan Zainullen (who?...exactly), to the Calgary Flames for a young forward named Marc Savard. Savard was without a doubt talented, but his struggles with Calgary coach Greg Gilbert landed him a ticket to Atlanta. By the end of the 05/06 season, Savvy had lined up with Ilya Kovalchuk and posted 47, 52 & 97 point seasons, leading to a 4 yr./$20 million deal with the Boston Bruins.

In 2000, Martin St. Louis was bought out by Calgary (whoops again) and picked up by the Tampa Bay Lightning for a mere $225,000 (by some hotshot GM named Rick Dudley). Over the past 8 years in Tampa, St. Louis has averaged almost 71 points per season.

Right now Savvy is seething over his being passed over for Canada's Olympic team:

'I feel that I had a chance to at least go to the camp. I didn't really come out and say anything. I had a lot of calls for a couple weeks after that. It's something I didn't want to talk about. I was pretty mad about it. I've had to prove myself over and over again. I'm hoping to get off to a good start. I still haven't counted myself out, so I guess that's all that matters.'

I don't know about you, but I'm not going to get in his way.

My point is simply, a trade is sometimes the best thing to shake a player out of complacency and into a state of productivity. The Atlanta Thrashers have invested: a first round pick, four years of time, and almost $10 million dollars in Kari Lehtonen, and he's responded with nothing more than simmering, unrealized potential. Something needs to change. I propose it is not only in the Thrashers best interest, but also in Kari's best interest for a trade to happen while there is still time for him to flourish.

 

3) Get While The Getting's Good

At this point in the Thrashers existence, they've got more depth than ever. Their forward corps can no longer be labeled "offensively challenged", and their d-men are a young and very talented group. The only pieces the Thrashers lack are consistent netminding and a dependable penalty kill. Goaltenders reach peak effectiveness later than forwards and defensemen, and that should be used to the Thrashers advantage. Given the potential still possessed by Kari, and the relative in-expense of a penalty killer, one of those needs could be immediately taken care of. As I sit writing, my Twitter feeds are blowing up with players being placed on waivers, demanding trades - now is the time to move. Hey, if the Thrashers act fast, they could probably lock up this guy named Manny Legace. I hear he's pretty good, and doesn't have a contract yet.

All of this bypasses the largest of the elephants in the room--the impending expiration of Ilya Kovalchuk's contract. What kind of message does it send to a star player contemplating his future when the team allows such a large question mark to reside in a key position?

 

4) Hope Is Not A Marketing Strategy

I recently attended a business conference where the phrase, "Hope Is Not A Marketing Strategy," was pounded into us on a daily basis. You see, the line of work I'm in finds itself floundering, due to a lack of discretionary spending on the part of the general public. Unfortunately, the general response of most people in my industry is one of total stop and stare, like deer in headlights. Apparently, this is not how business gets done. Decisive action is required. You can't be anchored to a proven ineffective method when money is short and time is of the essence.

Any of this sound familiar?

A year ago Thrasherville was faced with a regime change: new coach, new system, and a new mindset. "Team" has been emphasized more than in the past, and leadership has been placed with those who should carry it. The on-ice game plan has changed drastically. Those who couldn't fit have moved on, and the team is (overall) the better for it. A sea-change has occurred everywhere on this team, except in the position that matters most: the goaltending. Why is that? Why are the Thrashers holding on to a complacent player who has yet to deliver on his considerable promise and potential?

If we only knew.

 

COUNTERPOINT: Keep Kari Lehtonen

Tim's Take: It's hard to argue in favor of Kari Lehtonen. As a guy who was picked 2nd overall in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, you expect him to produce big returns. The Thrashers could have had Jay Bouwmeester! Let us, for a moment, look at other goalies who have been taken high in drafts around the same year as Kari:

Name

Draft Position

GP

Win %

Save %

GAA

Injured G/Yr

09-10 Salary

Lehtonen

2nd (2002)

204

0.531

0.912

2.87

21

$3MM

DiPietro

1st (2000)

273

0.511

0.905

2.79

16

$4.5MM

Fleury

1st (2003)

235

0.566

0.907

2.87

8

$3.5MM

Montoya

6th (2004)

5

0.750

0.925

2.08

N/A

$0.75MM

What can we gather from this information? Well, Lehtonen has pretty similar stats to these guys. His win percentage is in-between DiPietro and Fleury. I might argue that has something to do with the team that plays in front of each goaltender. Kari's career save percentage is higher than all but Al Montoya... though with only 5 NHL games under his belt, we'll probably have to throw those out due to the small sample size. Kari's GAA is right in line with Fleury and just slightly higher than DiPietro's. He's played the least number of games of the group and been injured the most - a point Aaron made above.

That said, he's also taking home the smallest paycheck of the group. If you look at cap hits, Kari looks even more affordable. (Fleury: 5 million, DiPietro: 15 years at 4.5 million...) Goalies don't typically play every game anyway. Would I like for Kari to be injured less? Sure. He's still playing a reasonable number of games per year with stats that are acceptable for his salary.

So what's the rub against Kari? Is it the games missed due to injury? I keep hearing from fans that Kari shows up to camp in terrible shape. My sense of it is that he's gotten far more serious about conditioning over the past couple years: it was a problem, but he's taken the necessary steps to correct it. In fact, didn't Kari stay in the U.S. last summer to work on his rehab and conditioning? Or am I mis-remembering that?

The real question I have is this: if not Kari, then whom? The uproar over releasing Manny Legace suggests that Thrashers fans are not ready for the Ondrej Pavelec era. Is Manny Legace the solution, then? Should our young, up-and-coming team rely on a goalie who is 36 years old? Does the youth movement stop just short of the goalie's crease?

Name me a team and I can name you problems with their starting goaltender. Roberto Luongo is a pretty talented guy, but he's making $7,500,000 this year. Next year he takes home $10,000,000 on a contract that extends well into his 40s with a cap hit over $5 million. I hear Wings fans complain about Osgood all the time... until the post-season, that is. I could go on.

The fact is, goaltenders are the final line of defense against goals. If the goaltender fails at his job, there's a pretty good chance it's a goal-against. In this way it is all too easy to blame them for failing the team. "If only Kari was the elite goalie we expected him to be!" If only my aunt had balls, she'd be my uncle. Guess what, folks? You don't earn a 0.912% save rate over your NHL career by eating Twinkies and blocking pucks with your fatty behind. (Notable exception in Thrashers history: Andy Sutton.)

So folks, let's put the pitchforks and torches down a moment. Kari will be out for several weeks to start the season. During that time, we'll have a chance to see what Ondrej can do. When Kari comes back, we should have some healthy competition.

One more thing to think about: just because we can trade him doesn't mean we'll get something good back. A year ago, a large proportion of Thrashers fans were ready to trade Todd White for a bag of pucks. Last year, he had a career year at a very affordable price. Kari's value is at a low-point right now, and the rule of thumb in stocks applies here as well: buy low, sell high. (Also applicable to fantasy sports.) Trading Kari Lehtonen might be in the long-term interest of the Atlanta Thrashers, but trading him at this point in his career would be a fatal mistake.

Think about it: which team will trade for a frequently-injured goalie who has some personality quirks when Manny Legace is sitting at home without a job?

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