On May 4th 2020, the Toronto Maple Leafs signed LHD Mikko Lehtonen to a 1-year Entry Level Contract. He was already 26 at that point so there was no illusion that he was a prospect, instead he was signed to play for the Leafs. The pandemic means that purpose will have to wait, and in the meantime he has been returned to KHL Jokerit on loan. Here is TLN’s initial profile on him.
On the surface a 6’0″ LHD with 49 points in 60 KHL games was impressive, but it seemed as if the Leafs were adding an offensive LD when they already had a surplus of offensive LHD. Between Calle Rosen and recently extended Teemu Kivihalme they also had existing European FA signings in depth D roles.
It wasn’t immediately clear if Lehtonen would take a bottom pair spot from Rasmus Sandin. Now with more cap space from the Kasperi Kapanen trade, the Leafs have a chance to add a RHD that would further clutter the depth chart. Perhaps Lehtonen took notice of that, because he has been very involved in the first two games Jokerit played (and won) in the 20-21 season.
In his first game Lehtonen drifted in from the point and scored Jokerit’s first goal of the season, high glove:
— Helsingin Jokerit (@jokerithc) September 5, 2020
In the second game he would show off his ability to join the rush to score near side:
— KHL (@khl_eng) September 9, 2020
He added a second goal on the night after a nice move at the blue line to shake off a defender:
Welcome to Mikko Lehtonen 🇫🇮 Show. pic.twitter.com/KpWqmeFOAn
— KHL (@khl_eng) September 9, 2020
All three of those goals came at even strength, and Lehtonen added a primary assist on the PP in the second game to bring his total to 4 points in 2 games. It all adds to an already strong case for Lehtonen to be in a Leaf jersey on opening night. It also helps that he has experience on either side:
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
Again it’s important to remember that Lehtonen is in his prime right now and this isn’t a prospect with more potential, but he is doing everything right to reserve a spot in the lineup when the 2020-21 NHL season is underway. He was named top Defenceman in the KHL for 2019-20. Some friendly fire on a TLN writer here (sorry Nick!) but Lehtonen’s first two games are a terrific answer to the question of “why are so many people assuming Lehtonen will be a solution on our blue line?”
I think with his upside you have to at least give him a full time spot. He won the KHL's top defenceman award before coming over, much like Zaitsev.
Lehtonen's 0.82 p/g is far and away the highest amongst KHL UDFA D pic.twitter.com/VQrePj7g7H
— Earl Schwartz (@EarlSchwartz27) September 4, 2020
So to circle back to the original point, that the Leafs seemed to sign an offensive LHD when they have that in abundance; they did. This one just happens to be better than the existing ones, and there is no reason to say no to an upgrade. I don’t expect Lehtonen to maintain 2 points per game in the KHL, but he was already an outlier amongst UDFA D in points per game and another season at 0.82 p/g would still be considered a success.
For the Leafs with Tyson Barrie on the way out, they will have an opening on PP2 on the point. I think back to Nikita Zaitsev’s 36 point rookie season and see a defenceman with much more offensive instinct in Lehtonen potentially getting the same opportunities. The key difference is that Lehtonen is UFA after his 1 year ELC where Zaitsev was RFA, so the Leafs should be solely focused on making the most of his 1 season under $1m instead of extending him.
As it currently stands Lehtonen is in competition with Travis Dermott for the final spot in the top 4, and a 2nd pairing of Muzzin – Lehtonen would be much more dynamic than the existing shutdown pair with Justin Holl. If that’s not what the Leafs are after and they acquire a RHD, Lehtonen could slide down to the third pair with Dermott.
That would come at the expense of Sandin, who would end up back with the Marlies in this scenario. I haven’t even mentioned Martin Marincin or Timothy Liljegren yet, which gives you some sense of the depth the Leafs are dealing with.
One way or another, Lehtonen is going to be in the Leafs lineup and his early performance in the KHL proves it. The Leafs will delay prospects a little longer in favour of Lehtonen, but it doesn’t mean he is the solution to the Leafs problems or that he is going to be signed to an extension. He is a gifted offensive player that has already proven himself in 3 European leagues, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see Lehtonen step in and have an effect comparable to that of Erik Gustafsson for Chicago.
If Lehtonen can play both sides of the ice, replace some of the production of Barrie, and maintain at least 50% of the shot share, this is a great signing for the Leafs. Over the past few seasons they have made moves to add defencemen that address their “needs” but ended up with big, slow RHD that cannot pass the puck. Even if Lehtonen does not fit the Leafs needs, he is a competent defenceman that can compliment their forwards, and that is something the Leafs have not always had on their bottom pair.