Lehtonen fills need moving forward

The Marty Turco era in Dallas is coming to an end.

General manager Joe Nieuwendyk didn't say that Tuesday. But in trading for Atlanta Thrashers goalie Kari Lehtonen, his actions certainly implied it. The Stars traded defenseman prospect Ivan Vishnevskiy and a fourth-round draft pick in 2010 to get the 26-year-old goalie.

It's Nieuwendyk's first major trade. It's also a risk. Lehtonen hasn't played an NHL game since April. He had two back surgeries in the offseason and has spent this season recovering from them. He just completed a two-week conditioning assignment with Chicago in the AHL and played in four games.

But he also has shown an ability to be a top goalie when healthy. And he's a restricted free agent, which means the Stars go into the 2010-11 season knowing they have a goaltender. Turco and backup Alex Auld are unrestricted free agents.

"I didn't want to get into a situation where we're going into the summer and we don't have anything in our net," Nieuwendyk said. "I'm hoping that he plays well, and obviously he's much younger and he's a proven No. 1. We anticipate that he'll do well for us."

The Stars have some good young goalies in the minors, such as Matt Climie and Brent Krahn, but they aren't ready to step in and play in the NHL. Lehtonen fills that void for next season.

As for now, Nieuwendyk says he expects the team to carry three goalies into the Olympic break, which starts for the Stars after their game in Phoenix on Saturday. The NHL has a trade freeze that starts Friday night and goes through Feb. 28. Lehtonen can at least get some work in while hockey takes its two-week hiatus. When play resumes in March, the coaching staff will go with the hot hand. But Lehtonen definitely will get his chance.

Expect Nieuwendyk to work the phones and at least see whether there's a market for Turco, who is 34. Maybe there's a team with some cap space willing to take a chance on him in return for a defenseman or something else of value. If not, Dallas can decide to part ways at the end of the season with Turco and Auld and use the money -- about $6.5 million -- to pay Lehtonen and help out on Loui Eriksson, Stephane Robidas and James Neal, who will get raises next season.

Nieuwendyk doesn't have to move one of his goalies based on money, though. He's working under a tight budget, with Stars owner Tom Hicks hiring an investment adviser to help Hicks Sports Group potentially sell a majority stake in the club. But Nieuwendyk said this trade and the additional payroll -- the Stars will pay the remainder of Lehtonen's $3 million salary for this season -- fits within the current budget.

"We couldn't have made this move if it didn't," Nieuwendyk said.

When healthy, Lehtonen, the No. 2 pick in the 2002 draft, has shown vast potential. He started 66 games in 2006-07 and was 34-24-9 with a 2.79 goals-against average and a .912 save percentage. But that's his only season playing the majority of the games. Injuries have slowed him. Lehtonen started 45 games each of the past two seasons before the back surgeries. He has 14 career shutouts and is tied for fifth all time in shootout wins with 20.

"He was drafted second overall for a reason, and he's an elite goaltender when healthy," Nieuwendyk said. "Now that he's on the right path, we're going to get a guy that's about to enter the prime of his career."

The move represents another step in Nieuwendyk's attempt to remake the Stars. One thing about his style is clear: He isn't afraid to take chances.

He fired coach Dave Tippett just one season removed from the Western Conference finals. No one would have blamed Nieuwendyk if he had let Tippett coach one more season -- a rash of injuries helped end the Stars' playoff hopes last season -- and taken some time to evaluate the organization. In a sense, Nieuwendyk could have bought himself another year by waiting to pick his own coach. But he felt the team needed a different voice in the room and a revamped style on the ice, so he hired Marc Crawford.

This trade is also a bit of a gamble. Vishnevskiy is considered a top defensive prospect -- a puck-moving blueliner who can add some offense -- and one that could end up becoming a solid NHL player. But to get a goalie with No. 1 potential, the Stars had to give up something. And the Stars still have Philip Larsen, a Danish-born defenseman playing in Sweden who the organization feels is close to being an NHL player.

Nieuwendyk's approach is similar to the philosophy general manager Jon Daniels is using with the Rangers. Daniels has a young core he's building his team around and is doing it under a strict budget. He got creative this offseason and moved some pieces around to create financial space to try to make the team better for the present and future. He also has taken a handful of chances on players who are injury risks.

Nieuwendyk has a young core as his foundation, but that doesn't include the goaltender. He had to make a decision on that position, the most important one on the ice. The Stars are spending about $6.5 million on goalies this season and not getting the value they expect or need. So the best way to operate going forward is to take a chance on a young goalie with upside who is more affordable.

Nieuwendyk made that decision Tuesday in going with Lehtonen. It's a risk worth taking. We'll just have to wait and see whether it pays off.

Richard Durrett covers the Stars for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.