Low-Risk, High-Reward for the Toronto Maple Leafs Blue Line
The Toronto Maple Leafs made yet another signing from overseas this past year. 26-year-old Defenseman Mikko Lehtonen was signed to a one-year $925,000 entry-level contract on May 4. Kyle Dubas and Co. had to make a profuse offer to Lehtonen to win him over from other competing NHL clubs like the Montreal Canadiens as well as the LA Kings.
He is slated to join the blue and white for the start of the 2020-21 season. The Fantastic-Finn spent last season and the start of this season playing with Jokerit Helsinki of the Kontinental Hockey League. In his first season with the club, he posted some impressive feats.
As of right now, no one knows exactly what to expect from Lehtonen, but as the KHL’s best defenseman, he should be, at worst, an upgrade over most bottom paring players.
Leafs and Lehtonen
Here is a list of Lehtonen’s accomplishments throughout the season amounted to (via eliteprospects.com)
- KHL All-Star Game
- KHL Defenseman of the Month (January)
- KHL Defenseman of the Month (December)
- KHL Defenseman of the Month (November)
- KHL Defenseman of the Week (Dec. 10)
- KHL Defenseman of the Week (Oct. 14)
- KHL Most Assists by Defenseman (32)
- KHL Most Goals by Defenseman (17)
- KHL Most Points by Defenseman (49)
- KHL Defenceman of the Year
Lehtonen finished first in team scoring with 49 points (17g-32a) in 60 regular-season games. Sure, offensive numbers can only show his offensive capabilities, but it is quite evident through his accolades in conjunction with a +/- of +26 that his two-way game is quite present as well.
Lehtonen does have a history of winning on his side as well:
2013-14 WJC Gold Medal
2016-17 SHL Champion
2018-19 World Championship Gold Medal
These experiences will hopefully bring some grounding and calmness to Lehtonen in big moments – Something that the Leafs need desperately following many collapses throughout the past decade.
So far, Lehtonen has remained with Jokerit on Loan from the Toronto Maple Leafs. This is due to the fact that Lehtonen will be unable to join the Leafs officially until the start of the 2020-21 NHL season. In only his first two games this season Lehtonen has already had 3 goals (all even strength) and 1 assist while averaging 20:53 ATOI.
He was without a doubt having a great start to his year until a number of cancellations came due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Assuming the soon resumption of the season, Lehtonen can continue to work on his game to prepare for the NHL campaign.
It is evident that the 6-foot 196-lbs left-handed shot will bring great offensive upside to the Leafs and their powerplay. 11 of Lehtonen’s 17 goals last season were on the powerplay. This provides great prospects for another PP quarterback to help take the load off of Morgan Rielly, not to mention another threat for teams to worry about from the blue line.
Dubas has also been trying to find the right fit to play on the right side of Morgan Rielly but to no avail. Perhaps Lehtonen can be the rock that Rielly needs as a partner to help him succeed. But, if it does take some time for him to adjust to North America (like some players), then maybe the Leafs can ease Lehtonen in and gradually work him up to a top-4 role. Assuming that Dubas makes no moves to change the outlook of his defense as well as resigns Dermott, the Leafs top-6 can look something like:
Rielly – Lehtonen
Muzzin – Holl
Dermott – Sandin
Extras – Marincin/Liljegren
It is still in question if Dubas will pursue any free agents or trades for defenseman this offseason, but, that is still a respectable defensive core for a team that was known to have great struggles on the blue line this past season.
The Toronto Maple Leafs look forward to seeing what Lehtonen can bring to the table, as do the fans. Lehtonen’s offensive upside paired along with his strong two-way play provides a low-risk, high-reward chance for the Leafs. Only time will tell if he can live up to be what some have come to call him, the Finnish Bobby Orr.