Toronto Maple Leafs: Lehtonen and Barabanov Experiment Is Over

TORONTO, ON - FEBRUARY 22: Mikko Lehtonen #46 of the Toronto Maple Leafs skates with the puck against the Calgary Flames during an NHL game at Scotiabank Arena on February 22, 2021 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Flames defeated the Maple Leafs 3-0. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - FEBRUARY 22: Mikko Lehtonen #46 of the Toronto Maple Leafs skates with the puck against the Calgary Flames during an NHL game at Scotiabank Arena on February 22, 2021 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Flames defeated the Maple Leafs 3-0. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images) /
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Prior to the start of the season, two KHL signings caught the attention of many Toronto Maple Leafs fans, but that journey now seems over as Mikko Lehtonen and Alexander Barabanov were sent to the Toronto Marlies this week.

Barabanov was considered a feisty two-way forward who could score and defend, while Lehtonen, was an elite offensive defenseman, who garnered offers from almost every NHL team. The Toronto Maple Leafs were considered fortunate to have landed them both.

After playing in a combined 20 NHL games this year, they’re already all but forgotten.

Whenever your team acquires the KHL Defenseman of the Year, you’re naturally excited. Lehtonen was considered the best defenseman outside of the NHL, and it looks like he’ll be competing for that same title again.

Toronto Maple Leafs, Lehtonen and Barabanov

Now that we’ve seen the Lehtonen experiment fail, it’s hard to realize that we didn’t see this coming earlier. Personally, I thought he was going to fit right into the top-six and be an impactful player. The Leafs needed defensive help and from the highlights I saw, I thought a defenseman that scored 49 points in 60 games and was the league’s best, could be a fit.

It was always going to be hard for anyone to crack the lineup of one of the NHL’s best teams when they’re an NHL rookie and don’t even get a training camp to adjust.  We may yet see them in the NHL, but for now they’ll go the AHL where they can play every night instead of rotting on the taxi squad.

Lehtonen reminds me a lot of Garret Sparks, T.J. Brennan and Kenny Agostino. All three of these players have a lot in common. Not only have they been apart of the Toronto Maple Leafs organization, but they were unbelievable AHL players.

Sparks won the AHL Goaltender of the Year award, Agostino won AHL Player of the Year and Brennan was a point-per-game defenseman in the minors.

All three of these players were arguably the best at their position in the AHL, but they never made an impact in the NHL. Agostino and Sparks are still fighting for that opportunity, but Brennan’s dream is officially over.

If you watched them closely in the AHL, they definitely had some flaws, but it didn’t seem crazy that they’d be everyday NHLers. I mean, how can you be so much better than everyone in the AHL, but not be any good in the NHL?

That same logic applies to Barabanov and Lehtonen. Although the average fan in Toronto probably wasn’t watching KHL highlights daily, from scouts and insiders, both players were two of the best in that league. Nobody said a single bad thing about the signings and it felt like the Leafs really hit the jackpot.

It’s unfortunate that both of the Leafs KHL signings failed this year, at least to date, but fortunately it didn’t cost them anything. They both make league-minimum and are one-year deals, so they can wash their hands with it and move on.

Next. Four Defenseman Leafs Could Trade For. dark

Let’s hope that both Lehtonen and Barabanov can find their game with the Marlies and eventually be impactful for the playoff stretch, but it feels like their Toronto Maple Leafs journey is over, before it really started.