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Ilya Kovalchuk #17 of the Atlanta Thrashers dives to keep the puck in play against the Buffalo Sabres at Philips Arena on January 14, 2010 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) (Kevin C. Cox/2010 Getty Images)
Ilya Kovalchuk #17 of the Atlanta Thrashers dives to keep the puck in play against the Buffalo Sabres at Philips Arena on January 14, 2010 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) (Kevin C. Cox/2010 Getty Images)

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Much of the speculation in Atlanta this season has focused on Ilya Kovalchuk and for good reason. If the Thrashers peddle Kovalchuk in advance of the NHL's March 3 trade deadline, it could shift the balance of power for whatever team happens to acquire him. He is that good. But on a long-term basis, the Thrashers have a second potential trading chip in goaltender Kari Lehtonen , who was rated so highly at one point that he went second overall in the 2002 entry draft, ahead of such notables as Jay Bouwmeester , Alexander Semin and Cam Ward . The problem with Lehtonen is he has been injury prone since turning pro and the Thrashers developed a respectable tandem in youngster Ondrej Pavelec and durable veteran Johan (The Moose) Hedberg in his absence. Lehtonen's upside is tantalizing, however. He is just completing a two-week rehabilitation assignment in the AHL, at which point general manager Don Waddell will need to make a decision. Carry three goalies? Or move one? Complicating matters is Lehtonen will be an unrestricted free agent this summer; and it's hard to imagine him having a role in Atlanta any time soon. A number of teams - put the Dallas Stars at the head of the list - could use a goaltender for tomorrow. Would they give up anything substantial to acquire him today? Maybe.

Funny how the really bad teams make almost as much news as the really good teams and nowhere is that more true than in Edmonton, where the poor Oilers are struggling to their worst finish in franchise history and are in line for a major remake at the NHL trading deadline. The Sheldon Souray guessing games are most prominent at the moment, given how the veteran defenceman with the bullet-like shot has acknowledged that he'd agree to a move. The most likely Eastern Conference destination: New Jersey, where the Devils could use his presence to boost their power play. Souray began his NHL career in the Devils' organization and is known to be a favourite of coach Jacques Lemaire . In the West, the team that makes the most sense is Dallas, if only because the Stars never truly replaced Sergei Zubov 's minutes as a front-line offensive defenceman. The red flags on Souray: contract and injury history. Souray has two years left after this season on a five-year deal that averages a $5.4-million cap hit each season. However, in terms of actual cash paid out, the last two years are at a more modest $4.5-million. Souray has had a difficult time this year - only four goals in 35 games - but in the two post-lockout seasons in which he got into 80 or more games, he scored 26 and 23 goals, respectively.

The Oilers had high hopes for Mike Comrie coming out of an exceptional training camp performance, but mononucleosis sidelined him for 30 games. Comrie finally returned for last Thursday's date with the St. Louis Blues; his return pushed Patrick O'Sullivan , with whom Comrie played through much of September, to the press box.

The Columbus Blue Jackets, like the Oilers, have virtually no chance of making the playoffs this season, which is why Raffi Torres will likely be moving in advance of the trade deadline. Torres is on an expiring contract, with a $2.25-million (U.S.) cap hit, and had a major impact on the Oilers' 2006 run to the Stanley Cup final with his physical play. Some years - as it was for Edmonton in '06 and Anaheim in '07 - the presence of a strong third line makes all the difference in winning and losing.

The Jackets will get defenceman Rusty Klesla back some time in early February. He's been out since Nov. 30 with abdomen and groin injuries.

The Wild have parted ways with Petr Sykora after he cleared waivers last week. Sykora, a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins' championship run last year, where Minnesota GM Chuck Fletcher worked as well, never quite fit in with the Wild. Injuries didn't help - not his own, and not the ones that sidelined Pierre-Marc Bouchard , his projected centre, for much of the season.

Finally some good news for Florida Panthers forward David Booth , who has been out since that blindside hit from Philadelphia Flyers centre Mike Richards last October. Booth is practising again and he could be back for a Feb. 5 date with the visiting Calgary Flames. Booth's return could be pivotal for a Panthers' team that needs to replace Nathan Horton 's scoring for the next four to six weeks.

The Detroit Red Wings continue to stumble along, even as some of their injured players return, which is predictable on some levels. Until the long-term absentees can get into game shape, a team often goes backward before it surges forward. In Detroit's case, Nicklas Kronwall came back earlier this week, Jason Williams was scheduled to play last night, Tomas Holmstrom was coming back early next week and the best news of all? Johan Franzen , aka The Mule, has made a near-miraculous recovery from reconstructive knee surgery and is scheduled to return Feb. 9 against St. Louis.

Even as the Boston Bruins struggle through an underachieving season, they made a nice gesture the other day and permitted veteran winger Mark Recchi to skip a day's worth of practices so he could run with the Olympic torch in Kamloops, his hometown. Recchi was a Canadian Olympian in 1998, flown into Nagano as an 11th-hour replacement for the injured Paul Kariya .

Had a nice catch-up chat with Kariya in Calgary the other day. A two-time Canadian Olympian, who postponed his NHL career to compete in the Olympics, Kariya really wanted to play in Vancouver, which would have made him an Olympian in three decades, with the added benefit of playing the final one in his hometown. But he knew the odds were long coming off major off-season hip surgery. A slow start doomed whatever chance he might have had. "I have 20-year-old hips," laughed Kariya, "to go with 35-year-old everything else."

Eric Duhatschek

 

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