The Maple Leafs scooped up the top European free agent defender when they signed Mikko Lehtonen to a one-year ELC on May 5.
So naturally, we want to see his scoring ability:
Unfortunately, that’s a different Mikko Lehtonen. Ours is also not the 33-year-old winger who played two games for the Bruins, nor is he the 41-year-old defender, drafted by the Predators, who played 15 games in the NHL. Ours is only 26 and has never played an NHL game. He’s climbing fast up the fantasy lineup cards, though. By the end of the week, the Leafs will be able to trade Morgan Rielly, Lehtonen’s imaginary value will have climbed so high. But history shows it’s hard for a Mikko Lehtonen to make it in the NHL.
Mikko Lehtonen and a very weak draft class
Our Mikko was born in Turku, so that set him on his early hockey path. Finland sticks pretty close to the idea that kids play for their local club, no matter how good they are. He went to TPS Turku when he was 15 and stayed there until he was 21, moving up through the junior age ranks.
When you’re looking at the stats for a European club player, you want to see if they played up an age bracket when young. Lehtonen moved to the U18 team when he was 16, and even played some U20 that year, never dropping back. He played for the Finnish national U17 team as well. In 2011-2012, when he was 17/18 (he has a January birthdate) he made his Liiga debut, and played on the U20 team most of the time. This is exactly what you expect to see in a player who goes on to be drafted, and Lehtonen was eligible for the NHL Entry Draft in 2012.
The NHL Central Scouting list for European Skaters had him 30th, and considering the way they split the lists out, and that three of the top five players on the North American list that year were Russians playing in North America, 30th is very low. Cast your mind back to 2012, and refresh your memory on that year:
The top European, Filip Forsberg, was taken 11th overall, the second, Teuvo Teravainen, went 18th, and the third, Sebastian Collberg was taken 33rd. Down in Lehtonen’s portion of the list is a lot of undrafted players, but some names stand out. Miro Aaltonen was ranked 33rd. Joel Vermin, who went on to a brief NHL career, was 34th. Up at the top, Pontus Aberg was ranked sixth, so I think we’ve conclusively proven that ranking players for the draft is really hard.
Lehtonen, unlike Aaltonen (6th round in 2013) and Vermin (7th round in 2013), was never drafted, not even as an overager like they were. His 2012-2013 season saw him stall out in the face of NHLers like Kris Russell, Kevin Shattenkirk and Alec Martinez filling up TPS during the lockout, and brighter prospects like Rasmus Ristolainen holding down a regular roster spot in his pre-draft year. Lehtonen played most of the year in junior, on the U20 team, and it’s hard to get noticed as a 19-year-old if you’re not on the big club.
He spent the next season loaned to the Mestis (one division below the Liiga) and another split between the two levels. It seems like he hit a developmental ceiling, and that might be true — not everyone sees a straight line of growth as an older teenager. He also might have been a good, but not great player in his club, playing a little over his head all along. He wouldn’t be the first player to get a rude awakening when he hits serious pro hockey for the first time. He’s of average height, so he wasn’t getting by the way Ristolainen did. TPS went with some import defenders the year after the lockout, and Lehtonen was locked out of the top level.
Three leagues, three successes
At age 21, Lehtonen left TPS and started an interesting odyssey playing pro hockey in three leagues in five years that culminated in this NHL deal. Those years are the most telling of his ability as an adult.
He played 43 games for KooKoo in 2016-2017, most of a season, and then signed in Sweden for HV71 for the last portion of their regular season and playoffs. KooKoo was well out of the playoffs in the Liiga, and HV71 finished in second place in the SHL, so the move was a good one at the time, and it got better, as they won the championship that year.
In the final game of the playoffs, a 2-1 overtime win, Lehtonen played 21:15 (on the right side), putting him behind a couple of names you might know: Lawrence Pilut, lately of the Buffalo Sabres and Rochester Amerks was the 1LD, and Andreas Borgman, now with the Blues organization in the AHL, but previously the Leafs free agent defender, was the 1RD.
Lehtonen only played nine regular season games, so looking just at his 16 playoff games, he played no power play time, but led the team in penalty kill time. His points look anemic, but he wasn’t being used with the top scoring line, that was Borgman’s job. Borgman got good enough points out of it that he signed an ELC with the Leafs that summer and had everyone’s hopes up.
With one SHL championship under his belt, but no NHL deal, Lehtonen returned to Finland, this time to a top team and a very successful year. His new team, Tappara, finished the regular season in 2017-2018 in third place, and they lost to their nemesis Kärpät in the final. Lehtonen led Tappara that year in TOI per game while playing the power play (top unit) and the penalty kill (sixth in TOI for defenders), and primarily playing on his natural left side.
Lehtonen had a very good Corsi % that year, fourth for regular roster players at 53%. This is normal on a number one unit on a good team in the Liiga, and he would have spent the majority of his time in the offensive zone. He’s in the top 100 league wide that year for Corsi, and by the time you weed out the one-game wonders, he’s at least in the top 60.
What does all that mean? Well, the Liiga is a little less tough a hill to climb than the SHL, and Lehtonen played on teams equally good in each league, but in different roles. Put in a position to get power play points with Tappara, he got them. But the competition for defender ice time is less fierce in the Liiga, and the other defenders on Tappara were lesser players than Borgman and Pilut. Lehtonen looked too good for the Liiga, however, and HV71 agreed. He re-signed with them for another season in 2018-2019.
With Borgman in Toronto and Pilut in Buffalo, Lehtonen led HV71 in ice time per game for all players. He got power play time, just not the most, but it added seven points to his totals of five goals and 19 assists. He’d been fully supplanted in penalty kill time, and filled in as a second unit alternate as he had in Finland. He led all defenders in points and was second in Corsi % on his team. Again, he was a top unit player on a good team playing an offensively focused game. It would be weird if his Corsi wasn’t good, but he doesn’t show signs of being a big defensive liability. His on-ice shooting % was fairly average, so he wasn’t getting a lot of luck-infused points either.
HV71 lost out in their second round of playoff action, so Lehtonen only played in nine games in that post season, but he’d done enough to prove he might be good enough for better things. First, the Finnish national team put him on their World Championships team for the second time (he also made the Olympic team, but only played one game). Next, Jokerit came calling and he made his KHL debut this season, playing 60 regular season games and six in the playoffs before the season was suspended and then cancelled.
Lehtonen had a lot of points this year, 49 with 17 goals, a career high on any team at any age. His SHL points per game played was .39 and his Liiga points per game played from his post TPS career was .48. That makes his .82 points per game played in one season in the KHL suspicious. If you see his gaudy Jokerit points and believe they are the measure of the man and that he magically took a step at age 26, I have a bridge to sell you.
Lehtonen played most of his KHL season on the top pair, and got a lot of power play time. He also led all KHL defenders in points and goals. Jokerit had a more balanced defence lineup than a lot of teams in the league, so his shifts per game at 25 is not usual for a top-pairing man.
Jokerit’s other left-side defender was Sami Lepisto, one of the greatest defenders in Europe. He has 176 NHL games played, with a very forgettable points pace and only six goals scored. Until this year, he was the top dog on the Jokerit defence corps. He split the time almost equally with Lehtonen this year, and at 35, the younger man outshone him and took most of his power play time. Lehtonen played on the left side with Alex Grant most of the season while Lepisto played with Viktor Lööv on the second unit. Yes, that Viktor Lööv.
Note: This Sportsnet story asserts that Lepisto played right side to Lehtonen’s left, which would leave the two right-shooting defenders to make up the second pair. While that might have happened at least some of the time in-game, not one single lineup card published by the KHL shows that conformation in the playoffs or in a random sampling of regular season games. Lehtonen is always listed on the left, usually with Grant.
UPDATE: The Athletic has an article based on video review that says Lehtonen played with Grant, Lööv and David Sklenicka, so Sportsnet seems to have been led astray by ice time and the tricky fact that sometimes a KHL team has seven or eight defenders dressed.
So what makes sense of this big jump in points? How about his personal shooting % of 9.2, which is absurdly high for a defender. And then the 20.8% enjoyed by Jesse Joensuu, a regular on the top line. Brian O’Neill, another top liner, shot 15.2% and Peter Regin shot 16.8%. Essentially, Jokerit’s top unit couldn’t help but score, and they all had glorious points totals this year. On a bad team where they’d get a greater share of the ice time, they could have been leading the league.
Will the Leafs be his fourth success?
Three teams at or near the top of the top three leagues in Europe put Mikko Lehtonen on their top pair and played him on the power play at least some of the time. That says he’s good enough to play there, and there’s nothing in his advanced stats, where they exist, that says this scouting report is anything but spot on:
He has a solid two-way game. Not a defensive stud but not a liability either. Very good skating helps out.— Alex Nunn (@aj_ranger) May 4, 2020
But before we all go pencilling him in ahead of Rasmus Sandin, Travis Dermott or god help me, Justin Holl, let’s cool off and ask what about Lehtonen assures us he’s better than Calle Rosen, Andreas Borgman and Teemu Kivihalme?
All three of those players have played top pair in the SHL or Liiga. All three of them have had lovely looking points when they play the power play. All three of them, plus Pilut and many others, have had serious trials on NHL teams, and they’re struggling to crack the third pair. Does one KHL season make Lehtonen better?
We could ask some of the other top-pairing KHL defenders this season: Jyrki Jokipakka, Michal Jordan, Ville Pokka, David Rundblad, Jakub Nakladal, and of course: Cody Franson.
I’m looking forward to finding out where Lehtonen stacks up next to Rosen, Kivihalme, Timothy Liljegren, Martin Marincin and who knows who else, but I’m not ready to assume he’s Ilya Mikheyev in defence form just yet. It could happen — lightning could strike twice. But the last time a player went from the Liiga to one glorious KHL year to the Toronto Maple Leafs, he left again as a bona fide AHL star, but with no NHL games played. Lehtonen’s future is as likely to follow Miro Aaltonen’s path as Mikheyev’s.
The Toronto Maple Leafs don’t need any help scoring goals; they have that covered. Mikko Lehtonen needs to be able to defend and to help this team find their way out of the defensive zone and transition to offence. If he can do that, we’ll all be happy he joined up.