Kari Lehtonen had a few bright spots during his tenure in Atlanta, but it was mostly dark days. Goalie Kari Lehtonen #32 of the Atlanta Thrashers skates towards the crease before the start of the second period during the game against the of the Montreal Canadiens at Philips Arena on March 6, 2009 in Atlanta, Georgia. The Thrashers beat the Canadiens 2-0 and Lehtonen recorded the shutout. (Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images)
We all recognize how important it is to build through the draft, especially in an age where teenagers make the direct leap more than ever. If you’re a team like the Atlanta Thrashers, who can’t afford to fill front-line roster spots through free agency, the draft is all the more important to keep the team competitive.
In trading away Kari Lehtonen to the Dallas Stars Tuesday night, the Thrashers have now disconnected themselves from all but one of their six first round draft picks from the first five drafts of the team’s existence. The one first-rounder left on the roster? Center Jim Slater, the 30th overall pick in 2002, whose career high in the NHL is 20 points.
The Lehtonen trade wasn’t a huge surprise, given the play of the much cheaper 22-year-old Ondrej Pavelec and veteran Johan Hedberg, and the fact the Stars are setting themselves up to move on without Marty Turco. But considering Lehtonen was picked second overall eight years ago, I’m not sure Ivan Vishnevskiy – even though he is a pretty good prospect – is the piece that will finally bring this team together.
Asset management is such a huge part of building a franchise and the Thrashers have failed miserably at it time and again. In the first seven years of Atlanta’s existence, they picked first overall two times and second twice, before going eighth, 10th and 16th. What does this team have to show for those lofty selection positions? Patrik Stefan, Dany Heatley, Ilya Kovalchuk, Lehtonen and Braydon Coburn have all been dealt, leaving the current team with Colby Armstrong (included in the Marian Hossa trade, who came in for Heatley), Niclas Bergfors and Johnny Oduya; Slater and 10th overall pick Boris Valabik remain, while the 16th overall pick in 2005, Alex Bourret, was dealt to the Rangers (then dealt again the next year to Phoenix).
That’s it. Jaroslav Modry, Niko Kapanen, Greg De Vries and Alexei Zhitnik were once part of trade returns for these players, with De Vries staying around the longest: two seasons and 164 games. Ouch.
And it doesn’t get any better for Atlanta in the later rounds of the draft, either. Sure, you can’t expect to build a team with just third-, fourth- and fifth-rounders, but you can hope they complement other pieces you’ve put in place and prevent you from having to make trades or sign free agents to make a competitive team. In their first seven draft years, Atlanta picked nine players outside of Round 1 who became NHLers, with the cream of the crop being current Thrasher Tobias Enstrom; the anomaly of the franchise.
Aside from him, Garnet Exelby, Darcy Hordichuk and Pasi Nurminen are the only ones to play more than 100 games and none of them are around anymore (though Atlanta was able to find a salary-dump partner in Toronto to land Pavel Kubina for Exelby, which may just be Don Waddell’s best trade of all-time). Pavelec, a second-rounder from 2006, is now being given his chance to prove himself as a No. 1 netminder.
So with a draft record as poor as Atlanta’s, they have no choice but to rely on shrewd trades to craft a team over the long haul. But their assets have been mismanaged to the point of neglect and the perfect example of what is wrong with this franchise can be seen through Dany Heatley.
When Heatley was traded for de Vries and Hossa, the Thrashers replaced their big scorer to play with Kovalchuk and also got a good defensive defenseman to add on the back end. The team was inching closer to the playoffs and it was seen as a positive move. Two years later, after being swept in their only playoff appearance, Hossa was traded to Pittsburgh for a return we can all agree now was atrocious for such a star.
Somehow Heatley has become Armstrong and prospects Angelo Esposito and Daultan Leveille.
Lehtonen had to be traded, but it’s another case of downgrading assets for this floundering franchise.
Over the next few years, it’ll be interesting to see what becomes of Waddell’s 2009-10 trade acquisitions. First, if they develop into anything significant and second, if the Thrashers downgrade once again.
From Day 1 in 1999, the Thrashers have faltered at the most important team-building techniques over and over, never really taking any strides towards year-in and year-out consistency. Trades aren’t always about the immediate return – especially when dealing with prospects – but what you do with those assets down the road.
And while other recent expansion teams from Nashville, Columbus and Minnesota have either made multiple playoffs or look strong for the next few years, Atlanta languishes near the basement without direction. Sure they have some good young parts, but do their fans really have any reason to hope their current assets will allow management to finally build a contender?
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