Toronto Maple Leafs: The Downside to Being a Contender

Finland's defender Mikko Lehtonen celebrate with the trophy after the IIHF Men's Ice Hockey World Championships final between Canada and Finland on May 26, 2019 in Bratislava. (Photo by JOE KLAMAR / AFP) (Photo credit should read JOE KLAMAR/AFP via Getty Images)
Finland's defender Mikko Lehtonen celebrate with the trophy after the IIHF Men's Ice Hockey World Championships final between Canada and Finland on May 26, 2019 in Bratislava. (Photo by JOE KLAMAR / AFP) (Photo credit should read JOE KLAMAR/AFP via Getty Images) /
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On Friday night the Toronto Maple Leafs made a move that shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone paying attention.

The Toronto Maple Leafs swung a trade with the Columbus Blue Jackets for a minor league goalie in exchange for potential superstar Mikko Lehtonen.

The Leafs signed Lehtonen to a lot of fanfare in the summer, and it was thought that the KHL’s best defenseman could really help the Leafs.  Not only was he probably the best player in the world not currently in the NHL, but he could play the right side, a spot where the Leafs were weak.

It did not work out that way, but that doesn’t lesson the potential of Lehtonen to be a star.

The Toronto Maple Leafs and Mikko Lehtonen

Lehtonen didn’t get a training camp and had to switch leagues in the middle of pandemic. He left a league were he led his team in ice time every night to try and win a job on arguably the NHL’s best team.

The Leafs were unable to give Lehtonen a fair chance because a) their blueline has been mostly healthy, and b) Zach Bogosian and Justin Holl are playing too well to give him a fair chance and c) they already have five offensive puck-moving defenseman in the lineup, d) Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren exist.

Not only are Bogosian and Holl playing well, but they are the Leafs two biggest defensemen. While no one will mix the two guys up in terms of their aggressiveness, the Leafs were already a small team (at least by reputation) and so smaller, offense based player was always going to have trouble usurping them, even if the team didn’t miss training camp.

With nowhere to play, and the ability to sign future KHL free-agents on the line, the Toronto Maple Leafs were forced to send him to a team that could give him a chance to play.

Lehtonen could very well end up as the one who got away.  The critics could easily be out in droves ripping Kyle Dubas a year or two from now as Lehtonen wins his first Norris Trophy.   Now, I’m not saying he will for sure be that good, but the chances aren’t zero.

This could easily end up being the kind of trade that is regrettable in the future where the context isn’t so clear anymore.  Once given a regular shift and time to acclimate to the NHL, Lehtonen still stands a very good chance of becoming a special NHL player.

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That is the cost of being a contender.  If the Leafs weren’t in Stanley Cup or Bust mode, there is no way they would have sat him for even a single game. I hate to see him go without getting a chance to capitalize on his amazing talent, but I’d much rather be a contender than roll the dice on a longshot superstar.