Toronto Maple Leafs: What the Numbers Say About Mikko Lehtonen

KOSICE, SLOVAKIA - MAY 23: Mikko Lehtonen #4 of Finland controls the puck during the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Slovakia quarter final game between Finland and Sweden at Steel Arena on May 23, 2019 in Kosice, Slovakia. (Photo by Lukasz Laskowski/PressFocus/MB Media/Getty Images)
KOSICE, SLOVAKIA - MAY 23: Mikko Lehtonen #4 of Finland controls the puck during the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Slovakia quarter final game between Finland and Sweden at Steel Arena on May 23, 2019 in Kosice, Slovakia. (Photo by Lukasz Laskowski/PressFocus/MB Media/Getty Images) /
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Toronto Maple Leafs
Mikko Lehtonen . (Photo by JOE KLAMAR / AFP) (Photo credit should read JOE KLAMAR/AFP via Getty Images) /

On Monday morning, the Toronto Maple Leafs announced the signing of top European defenceman Mikko Lehtonen to a one-year entry-level contract.

For the second consecutive season, the Toronto Maple Leafs have managed to land the number one European free agent primed for NHL minutes.

Last October, Ilya Mikheyev burst onto the scene following a summer of minimal fanfare heading into the season. This time around, things will be much more different with Lehtonen, and that primarily comes down to the position he plays.

Though Mikheyev had a promising statistical profile when he signed his one-year ELC a year ago, there wasn’t all that much hype around him coming into the season. As a winger entering a Toronto organization filled to the brim with depth options on the wing, it makes sense that he was able to fly under the radar until everyone hit the ice for training camp.

Toronto Maple Leafs and Mikko Lehtonen

There’s little debate that Mikko Lehtonen was the best defenceman in Europe this past season. In terms of traditional boxscore totals, Lehtonen was superb. He scored the fifth-most points by a defenceman in KHL history and led a top-level team in Jokerit in scoring. As a 26 year old playing his first season in the KHL, that alone is a very exciting outline.

As the top-scoring defenceman in the KHL this season, Lehtonen produced more and at a higher rate than infamous former Los Angeles Kings blueliner Slava Voynov, who ranked second in the same metric.

This isn’t a case of a player generating a ton of offense exclusively on the man advantage either. Though six of Lehtonen’s 17 goals came on the powerplay, 22 of his 32 assists were at even strength.

Where the intrigue really starts to pick up for me though is in the tracking data that the KHL has made public from this season.

For the first time this past year, the KHL featured player and puck tracking, allowing them to record many different things from individual passes to speed and much more. They essentially tracked what you saw in the NHL All-Star Game broadcast, except over the course of the entire season.

While not all of the data is readily available, what is paints a fascinating picture in relation to the Toronto Maple Leafs newest acquisition. The last league leaders update I can find on the KHL website comes from early February, which would have left three to four weeks remaining in the KHL schedule.

What that data shows is that Lehtonen is a workhorse and one that is perfectly comfortable with the puck on his stick.

At that point of the season, Lehtonen had travelled just under 283 kilometres on ice, second-most behind the aforementioned Voynov. With the puck on his stick, however, he covered the most distance in the league by a wide margin. Lehtonen carried the puck for 37.3km, almost five kilometres more than second in the league.

This is a big selling point for the Leafs whose strategy is to have the puck as much as possible.

Evidenced by his puck possession and point totals, it’s clear that Lehtonen isn’t afraid to rush the puck and is strong transitioning up the ice. In terms of passing, he finished the season having successfully completed 85.68% of his league-leading 2228 passes.

Coming over to the smaller ice in North America will result in less time to make decisions and move the puck, so seeing that Lehtonen already does this at such a high rate is a good sign for his upcoming transition.

Unfortunately, average skating speed with the puck isn’t available on the KHL site so we can’t get a true look into how quickly Lehtonen plays. What we can see is the top speed he reached all season, 39.1 km/h. The top speed registered this year was 40.1 km/h, showing that when he needs to, Lehtonen can get on his horse.

All of this is promising, but it’s not to say there are no reservations regarding Lehtonen.

To begin, we don’t have any comparables for Lehtonen’s scoring rate as a defender coming over to the NHL. The three defenders that have scored more points in a single KHL season all remained in the league the following season. Expand that to points per game and the fact remains the same.

You have to go down the list quite a ways before you can find the highest-scoring blueliner to jump from the KHL to the NHL the following year. That honour goes to Philip Larsen and his 36-point, 0.69 PPG campaign in 2015/16. Even then, Larsen wasn’t an unknown commodity in North America, having played multiple seasons in the Dallas and Edmonton systems prior.

Though we don’t have any direct comparables for Lehtonen, generally looking at KHLers that have jumped to the NHL tells us a lot about where we should set our expectations.

The transition is a difficult one, with many factors ranging from a new ice surface to a new country, and almost universally significantly less ice-time.

Some are able to adapt nearly seamlessly, such as the Toronto Maple Leafs own Mikheyev who saw his KHL production drop just 19% in the NHL, the lowest drop among players going from the KHL to the NHL in the past four years.

Others, like Vadim Shipachyov and Sergei Shumakov, make a minuscule impression before going back to Russia for good despite their eye-popping KHL totals. (All stats from KHL.ru).

Cautious optimism is where I would put things here regarding Mikko Lehtonen. The metrics are very exciting and he has a history of strong performance across the three top leagues in Europe, plus an excellent 2019 World Championships for Finland.

Still, it’s never a sure thing (just look at the hype Eeli Tolvanen had a couple of years ago) and Lehtonen will have his work cut out for him with the incredible amount of left-handed options the Leafs have.

Next. What Does the Lehtonen Signing Mean for Tyson Barrie?. dark

For just one year at $925k, this is a quality low risk, high reward situation for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

If he can’t adjust? He goes down to the AHL or terminates his deal and goes back to Jokerit with no harm done. If he does adjust and breaks out as a legitimate NHL defender? You get a cheap minute eater in a year where who knows what’s going to happen to the salary cap. This is yet another shrewd move from Leafs management and one that is truly a feather in the cap to their free-agent recruitment.