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Make or Break #1: Thrashers Bet Season on Pavelec and Lehtonen

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The Atlanta Thrashers have assembled a competitive roster this season, but the Eastern Conference is highly competitive and the battle for the last few post-season slots should be intense. Each of these playoff contenders has question marks, for the Thrashers goaltending will either make or break their quest for the playoffs.

Incumbent Kari Lehtonen has talent, but lacks consistency and the ability to stay in the lineup. Challenger Ondrej Pavelec has posted outstanding numbers in the QMJHL and AHL, but he struggled a bit last year with a weak Chicago Wolves team. He has been hot and cold in his NHL starts and still overplays the puck at times. Veteran backup Johan Hedberg annually ranks among the worst NHL goaltenders in the traditional metrics of GAA and SV%, but is beloved by teammates and management.

One the major decisions of Thrashers Training Camp was what to do with the goal position. Coach Anderson indicated that the team would start with 3 goaltenders. Given that Kari Lehtonen will begin the season on the IR, this seemed to suggest that Manny Legace might make the Thrashers squad. However, the team released Legace from his tryout yesterday.

The Thrashers choose Hedberg over Legace and I'm afraid this could come back to haunt them. Legace has played on some pretty bad St. Louis Blues teams over the last three years. He was their #1 guy in 2006-07 and 2007-08 and he posted respectable numbers despite the quality of the team in front of him. In 2008-09 the Blues qualified for the post-season but Legace lost the starter job and played in few games.

Looking at Goals Against Average on the last three years (see below), Legace has a much better average.

NHL Goals Against Average 2006-09
Player     Minutes      Goals     GAA
Legace 7638 333 2.62
Lehtonen 9264 448 2.90
Hedberg 4700 262 3.34
Pavelec 946 54 3.42

 

And if you look at Save Percentage (below), Legace is 2nd only to Lehtonen and much better than Hedberg and Pavelec.

NHL Save Percentage 2006-2009
Player         Saves     Shots Against             SV%
Lehtonen 4685 5133 0.913
Legace 3161 3494 0.905
Hedberg 2139 2401 0.891
Pavelec 437 491 0.890

Based on talent alone, the Thrashers kept the wrong guy.

There are question marks around both Lehtonen and Pavelec. Both could be outstanding--or far less than than outstanding. The Thrashers are rolling the dice that either Lehtonen or Pavelec will step up and deliver. If Lehtonen is hurt for long stretches and Pavelec is not ready for the NHL, the team will find it very expensive to acquire another veteran goalie.

Are there any good reasons to let Legace go? Yes. Keeping Legace would have eaten up a lot of the remaining budget. If the Thrashers had kept Legace, he probably would have wanted a salary of $1-1.5 million and eating Hedberg's contract ($1.15 million) would have consumed $2.5-3.0 million of the team's budget. That's a lot of money to spend on your insurance goalie. On the flip side, if Lehtonen/Pavelec/Hedberg trio perform well, the Thrashers might have budget space to make a trade deadline acquisition or two assuming they are in the playoff hunt. Even better, if they could find a trade partner to take Hedberg's contract once Lehtonen returns, that would clear even more budget space for a trade deadline addition.

It might all work out in end, but the Thrashers did not keep the best player in the Legace vs Hedberg battle and it is because of bad contract decisions made two summers ago. I'll never understand why borderline guys like Hedberg and Boulton were both given multi-year contracts in the summer of 2008 after the Thrashers finished 28th in a 30 team league. If those guys were really difference makers, the Thrashers woud not have finished 28th. If they are "replacement level players" then there is no need to make the multi-year commitment.

Conclusion

The Thrashers quest for the playoffs largely rests on the quality of goaltending they receive this year. The team is gambling by thinking Lehtonen and Pavelec will be sufficient--because backup Johan Hedberg clearly is not going to carry this team. In part, this decision was financial and the Thrashers have saved some money which might enable a roster acquisition later in the season.