04 December 2007

Well ain't that some shit

Here we go again with the rotation bullshit. I thought we left this behind with the firing of Hartley. Guess I thought wrong.

Waddell noncommittal on goalie rotation

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 12/05/07

There was a great save in overtime, and another one in the shootout. Twice former Tampa Bay forward Eric Perrin thought he had Kari Lehtonen beat in the regular-season finale last season. And twice he was wrong.

The Thrashers goalie helped send Perrin and his teammates back to Tampa with a loss, and Perrin was impressed. That's also why he was so surprised when Lehtonen didn't start every game of the playoffs.

"We were all surprised how [Bob Hartley] did the rotation and all that," Perrin said.

Critics questioned the playoff goalie rotation under Hartley, just like some wondered why Lehtonen started so many games during the regular season while veteran Johan Hedberg sat on the bench.

Now, we find out how interim coach and general manager Don Waddell, not Hartley, will manage the goaltending duo of Lehtonen and Hedberg. Lehtonen is back from his groin injury, and how Waddell uses his talented young goalie could determine whether the Thrashers can jump from the playoff bubble to playoff contention.

We know this much: Lehtonen will start Wednesday against the New York Islanders. After that, nothing is set.

"We'll find enough action for both of them," Waddell said. "Once we get into it, it's hard to say who is going to play which games."

For his part, Hedberg isn't conceding the majority of the starts back to Lehtonen just because he appears healthy. When asked if it was frustrating to hand the keys to Lehtonen after leading the team back to contention, Hedberg's answer was strong.

"I haven't turned the keys back over to him," he said. "Kari comes back and he had a shutout his first game, so he's proven he wants to be the man. At the same time, I had so much fun when I got to play a lot. ... If he's going to play all the games, we'll see. Maybe I end up playing all the games — whatever makes the team win."

While Waddell seems determined to strike more balance between Lehtonen and Hedberg than Hartley did during the 2006-07 regular season, Lehtonen also noticed that Waddell is more hands-off.

In fact, Lehtonen couldn't think of one goalie-specific conversation he's had with Waddell since he returned from the groin injury.

"I was a lot more involved with Bob. I was talking to Bob a lot; he was talking to me a lot. Don leaves all the goalie stuff for [assistant coach Steve Weeks]. It's a different approach," Lehtonen said. "It's regular people stuff with Don."

And there's one player in the Thrashers' locker room who thinks that is the right approach for Lehtonen — Ilya Kovalchuk.

Kovalchuk has thrived under Waddell and has said on multiple occasions that it's the most fun he's had playing hockey. He looks at Lehtonen and sees a guy who needs to be left alone and allowed to let his talent flourish. Kind of like he has.

"The goalie, it's such a totally different personality and preparation. You just need to leave him alone or tell him, 'You're good, just relax and play your game,' " Kovalchuk said. "When [Lehtonen's] smiling and having fun in practice, that's when he's getting better. He's big, strong and quick — just let him play."

I will unequivocally say that in my pretty-damned-expert opinion that Kari is the best goaltender in the league right now. Better than Brodeur and Luongo? I believe so, yes. All he needed is to know his team and his coach have the utmost confidence in him. Clearly Kovy and Perrin are behind him, and when Kovy speaks, this team listens. Hopefully Waddell will listen as well. Let Kari play.

Yes, he's earned that lack of confidence by breaking in clutch situations, but let's not mince words. Hartley treated him like crap. You can't put any 21, 22, 23 year old kid in the high-pressure situations he's been in, jerk him around constantly, leave him wondering where the hell he stands, and then be surprised when he falls apart. He's just now coming into his probable prime. Ideally, he needed to be nurtured and brought up during those vital early years of his career, and instead, he was given tremendous responsibility, put under intense pressure by not just his coach, but the entire organisation, and when he cracked, as was the likely response given the situations, instead of letting him battle his demons, the choice was taken from his hands. That will fuck up anyone's confidence.

Kari is finally free of the onus of Bob Hartley, and by Kovy's own words, thriving. Let him be who he can be. Let him prove to himself, to the team, and to the rest of the world that he is indeed the best netminder in the game today. If you have a little bit of faith, if you wait and see, instead of constantly calling for him to be traded, he will play his game like only he can.

And what the hell is that quote from Hedberg? Not giving the keys back? This ain't your gravy train, Moose. It's Kari's, and you're riding on his bandwagon. The job title is "backup" for a reason. In all likelihood, Heddy will be gone to another team at the end of the season. With Pavelec coming up strong with the Wolves, and having proven he's capable of playing at the NHL level, a team with a more dire goaltending situation can better benefit from Hedberg's experience, and Hedberg can better benefit from more guaranteed starts. He was brought into the organisation specifically to mentor Kari. It was a brilliant move, and likely there was not a better teacher out there for Kari to learn from. It would have worked a hell of a lot better if Hartley wasn't jerking Kari around, but what's done is done. And while Heddy's played very well during Kari's injury, he's not a guarantee. I'm not saying Kari is a guarantee, but he's much closer to one than Johan is. Kari is bigger, younger, quicker, and just sees the game better. Not unlike Theodore's single-playoff-run of brilliance, Moose was likely a one-hit-wonder in terms of being a starting goaltender. When he was 27. When the team in front of the goalie knows he's there behind them, solid and dependably backstopping them, when they have no doubts about his skill, his talent, his ability, it shows in their play. It also shows in the play of the goaltender. With the team's confidence in him, as well as Waddell's, Kari will rise to magnificence.

Let him play, Don. He ain't called "Let None In" for nothing. Believe in Lehtonen. Or was that just some marketing bullshit?

For Firewagon Hockey, I'm Maal "Blowing sunshine up Kari's ass since 2002" Ivahti.

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