Yesterday, the Toronto Maple Leafs announced they had signed the highly coveted Mikko Lehtonen to a one-year entry-level contract. The native of Turku, Finland had recently terminated the final year of his contract after a breakout season with Jokerit of the KHL to pursue his NHL options.
When word first broke on May 1st that Lehtonen had become a free agent, it was widely reported that the New Jersey Devils, Los Angeles Kings and Montreal Canadiens were in heavy pursuit of the 26-year-old Finn. That the Leafs jumped to the front of pack and were able to land Lehtonen speaks volumes to the team’s positive reputation with European free agents and to Jim Paliafito and his ability to continuously unearth these free wallets for the team.
In this post though, I wanted to take a closer look at Lehtonen’s game and try to identify what he brings to the table and where he might slot in next season.
First, let’s take a look at Lehtonen’s boxcar stats dating back to the 2014-15 season, when Lehtonen became a full-time player in Liiga.
|Regular Season Stats|
A few things stand out upon first glance at Lehtonen’s boxcar stats:
- He takes a lot of shots on goal
- He has hit double digit goal totals on three different occasions
- He is a workhorse for the teams he has played on
- He scored 11 of his 17 goals this past season on the powerplay
Lehtonen recorded a whopping 880 shots on goal in 220 Liiga games. That averages out to exactly four shots on goal per game. In the SHL, that number drops to 2.25 shots on goal per game. This past season, Lehtonen fired 184 shots on goal in 60 games, an average of 3.07 shots per game. In comparison, only four defensemen in the NHL were averaging over three shots on goal per game this season (Josi, Pietrangelo, Burns, Theodore).
With Lehtonen recording 11 goals on the powerplay for Jokerit, I went through each gamesheet for Jokerit this past season to see how Lehtonen was generating points.
|Lehtonen’s Point Breakdown in 2019-20|
What is encouraging is that Lehtonen recorded the majority of his assists at even-strength (ESA). The first-assist (FA) to secondary-assist (SA) ratio is nearly even which is a good indicator that Lehtonen has playmaking ability. Lehtonen’s powerplay production is going to take a hit next season due to Morgan Rielly likely manning the top powerplay unit and with the Leafs giving their second powerplay unit the scrap time on a powerplay.
Let’s dive into some game tape of Lehtonen.
At the 2019 World Championship, Lehtonen (4) drops the puck to Jokiharju (28) on the powerplay. Jokiharju enters the offensive zone on the right wing. Instead of posting up at the blueline, Lehtonen recognizes that all four of Great Britain’s penalty killers are watching the puck, allowing him to sneak down low on the left side uncontested for a tap-in goal.
He is not afraid to lead the rush as well.
Mikko Lehtonen (#44) has a strong shift on the power play that results in a goal. pic.twitter.com/8lDE1TGXMQ
— Michael (@TheLeafsIMO) May 4, 2020
This shift highlights many of the strong offensive qualities Lehtonen brings to the table. In the clip we see Lehtonen make a few strong plays in tight and while under pressure to keep the play alive at the blueline. We also see Lehtonen’s playmaking ability and vision as he is able to find the seam and hit his teammate for a backdoor cross-ice scoring chance before finally scoring on a one-timer.
— KHL (@khl_eng) September 4, 2019
While not “heavy”, Lehtonen has a good wrist-shot and a knack for sifting it through traffic.
From these clips we can gather a few things:
- Posses a solid one-timer
- Possess a decent wrist-shot
- Ability to get pucks on net
- Not afraid to join the rush
- Can make plays under pressure
Having a one-timer and the ability to get pucks through from the point are two key qualities that should help Lehtonen offensively next season. This season, Tyson Barrie was the king of having his shots blocked by the opposition, and Morgan Rielly was not that far behind him in that department.
I was able to find game 1 of the KHL Conference Quarterfinals between Jokerit and Lokomotiv online and checked out Lehtonen (44) in the game. Lehtonen scored a goal and added two assists in a 6-0 win.
In this clip, we see Lehtonen make a good first pass to exit the defensive zone. Shortly after, Lehtonen pinches in down low to try and keep the play alive in the offensive zone.
Lehtonen’s first assist of the game comes after he beats his man to a loose puck that was chipped out. He quickly sends the puck back up to his forwards while under pressure, leading to a rush off the transition.
On this shift, Lehtonen turns the puck over in the offensive zone. He showcases his strong skating ability to hustle back and cutoff the opposition.
Lehtonen’s second assist of the game. Off the faceoff, Lehtonen back peddles towards the middle of the ice, drawing in the opposing forward for a shot block. With the shooting lane closed, Lehtonen pump fakes and cuts back against the grain. This freezes the opposing forward and re-opens the shooting lane. Lehtonen floats a wrister on net that is deflected. Good mobility from him on this play.
Here is Lehtonen’s goal from the game. He receives the puck from a forward down low and immediately sends it over to Niklas Jensen (71) on the left side. Jensen fakes a shot on goal and tee’s up Lehtonen for a one-timer that he rifles home.
From this game I was able to confirm a few more things about Lehtonen:
- Makes a good first pass
- Strong skater, can use his skating ability to get out of trouble
- Poise with the puck
- Can kill penalties
Where will he slot in?
I’m sure many fans were confused as to why the team had signed another left-shot defenseman.
Leafs' Mikko Lehtonen says he played an entire season on the right side in Sweden. Fine playing either side, he says.
— luke fox (@lukefoxjukebox) May 4, 2020
Lehtonen on playing the right side: "Sometimes I like it more." #Leafs
— Terry Koshan (@koshtorontosun) May 4, 2020
That he can play the right side, boosts Lehtonen’s chances of making the team next season. After all, Justin Holl is the only right-shot defenseman signed for next season. It also provides insurance for GM Kyle Dubas if injuries hit or if a young Timothy Liljegren needs more time in the AHL next season. Lehtonen’s transition to the smaller NHL ice should not be too hard. In the KHL, six team’s played on a North American-size rink, with another 11 playing on Finnish-size rinks (in-between NA size and International size).
If we look at the Leafs defense for next season, Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin and the aforementioned Holl represent the only locks to make the opening night roster next season. I would also throw in Marincin as the team’s defacto seventh defenseman. That leaves Travis Dermott, Rasmus Sandin, Timothy Liljegren, Calle Rosén and anyone else the team signs or acquires via trade in the offseason to battle it out with Lehtonen for three spots.
Assuming Dermott is re-signed and no trades or additional signings are made. The team could very well roll with a defense group that looks like this:
|2020-21 Leafs Defense|
I would imagine Lehtonen starts on the team’s third pair, with the potential to quickly work his way up into top four minutes depending on how he fares. Lehtonen will probably also get a shot at quarterbacking the team’s second powerplay unit and may also see time on the penalty kill.
The Mikko Lehtonen signing represents a low-risk, high-reward gamble for the Leafs next season. Only time will tell if he is the next Nikita Zaitsev, Igor Ozhiganov or Ilya Mikheyev.