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Last night the Atlanta Thrashers traded goaltender Kari Lehtonen to the Dallas Stars in exchange for defenceman Ivan Vishnevskiy and a fourth round draft pick.

Lehtonen, the second overall pick in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, is one of the league’s most talented and most injury-prone goaltenders.  He was the MVP of both the regular season and the playoffs in his draft year, and prior to establishing himself as an NHL’er was dominant in the American Hockey League.  In parts of five seasons with Atlanta Lehtonen has played just over 200 games with a .912 save percentage.  The talent is incredible, and at just 26 years of age it’s entirely possible Lehtonen hasn’t peaked yet.

The flip side of the issue is his injury record.  Prior to back surgery which has sidelined him all season, Lehtonen had missed more than 100 games since the NHL lockout with groin, back and ankle injuries.  Lehtonen’s spent the last two weeks on a conditioning stint with the AHL’s Chicago Wolves, where he has a .899 save percentage.

Going back to Atlanta, Vishnevskiy is widely regarded as the Stars’ best defensive prospect.  The Stars aren’t exactly deep on defence; aside from Vishnevskiy, their only high-end defensive prospect is Philip Larsen, a fifth round pick in the 2008 draft.  Despite Vishnevskiy’s highly touted offensive game, he doesn’t appear to have developed offensively since his draft year (2005-06).  Below is his projected NHL offence, using Gabriel Desjardins’ league equivalencies.

Season League GP G A PTS
2005-06 QMJHL 82 6 15 21
2006-07 QMJHL 82 5 14 19
2007-08 QMJHL 82 9 14 23
2008-09 AHL/NHL* 82 3 9 12
2009-10 AHL/NHL* 82 6 11 17

 

*NHL numbers are counted on a 1:1 basis, with AHL numbers being projected using Desjardins’ conversion factor.

Those translated numbers don’t show a prospect ready to have an immediate offensive impact, and scouting reports indicate that Vishnevskiy’s defensive game is still developing.  He’s still young and there’s plenty of time for him to correct that, but despite three good games with Dallas at the end of last season he is a bit of a project at this point.

This adds credence to the Marty Turco rumours that have been floating around all season, although it’s hard to know what Dallas will be able to get for him.  He’s been effective in three out of five post-lockout seasons (and miserable in the other two), and the pending unrestricted free agent is getting paid like a franchise goaltender at $5.7 million this season.  It’s hard to know how Dallas has fared here until we see the return for Turco.

What we do know is that Joe Nieuwendyk has made a high-risk, high-reward gamble here.  I’m bullish on Lehtonen’s abilities and his potential, and he could make Nieuwendyk look like a genius.  Hopefully for Stars fans, Nieuwendyk doesn’t bet it all on Lehtonen and hangs on to a reliable backup for as long as his new goalie is under contract.

Atlanta gets a mid-round draft pick and a mid-level prospect, and are left with Ondrej Pavelec and Johan Hedberg as their goaltending duo.  They didn’t make out like bandits here, but once the decision was made to move on from Lehtonen they did a fair job of getting some value for him.  All in all, I’m inclined to mark this down as a slight win for Dallas.