The year was 2002. The city? Toronto. The Atlanta Thrashers had the second overall pick. They looked to Finland and selected a goalie by the name of Kari Lehtonen. And this is where the journey begins.
It is not that Lehtonen was a bad pick. In fact, he is a player who has lasted a lot longer in the NHL than his other top-5 counterparts. No, the Thrashers screwed up this pick because of what they did to him once he became a fairly reliable goalie for them.
Lehtonen spent his first year in North America in the minors. In the AHL he put up very good numbers and seemed to be developing into a top young goalie. When he made the NHL at 21 he proved to be a good, not great, goalie. The Thrashers were a terrible team and while not winning them many games, Lehtonen was not losing them games single-handedly.
So how did this all go so wrong for the Thrashers: Ondrej Pavelec and Alan Walsh. Pavelec thought that he deserved to be in the NHL as a starter and not as a back-up. Don Waddell conceded this to Pavelec and traded Lehtonen for Ivan Vishnevskiy and a fourth round pick which ended up being Ivan Telegin. Not a great return, but certainly could be worse. Except Pavelec has never shown himself to be a NHL starting goalie, even when he was in junior. Trading Lehtonen actively made the Thrashers worse and there is no denying that.
The trading of Lehtonen is not a cautionary tale about drafting second overall. If it is a cautionary tale of anything, it is about the dangers of letting prospects dictate the terms for which they play for an organizations. When the Tampa Bay Lightning refused to trade Jonathan Drouin on anything other than their terms, they sent him the message that they will do what is best for the team. While it was a harsh message, it has worked out for both parties so far in the playoffs, even if it is at a detriment to the player. If you think of hockey teams like a workplace, you cannot just go and dictate the terms of your work, even if you are unhappy. That is what Pavelec did and the Thrashers caved. When Drouin did the same thing, the Lightning did not cave and now have a productive player in the playoffs to show for it.
The last time the Thrashers drafted second overall they were a mess of an organization. They were new to the NHL and were clearly struggling without much direction. They drafted a goalie incredibly high in the draft. It worked out for them to a degree, but in the end they lost that goalie for very little to allow an inferior goalie start for them. That is where the career of Lehtonen and the Thrashers really ended. It was not because he was a second overall pick and never was a goalie of the calibre that you would expect from someone drafted that high. Instead, he was a goalie who was traded instead of being allowed to re-take his net and have Pavelec sit as the back-up, be traded, or letting him go to Europe.
Lehtonen had injury issues. He was not the best goalie. Yet if he had stayed with the Thrashers and moved to Winnipeg with the team, there is a chance that Winnipeg would be in a much different place than they are today. The net would probably be in the hands of Connor Hellebuyck and even if they missed the playoffs this year because of that, it would have been a much better process in the long run for the organization.
When the Thrashers last drafted second overall, they got a good player. What happened to Lehtonen was not his fault, but the Thrashers for failing to properly evaluate talent and letting a better goalie go because a younger goalie thought he deserved something. It will be hard for the Jets to repeat the Thrashers failure with Lehtonen, but that failure was not immediate. The real failure for the Thrashers with Lehtonen is the same one the Jets have fallen into: they believed too much in Ondrej Pavelec. The Winnipeg Jets will probably not lose the second overall pick the same way the Thrashers did. Lehtonen might not have been second overall pick material, but he was also not a goalie who deserved to be usurped by Pavelec.