The Leafs have been fairly welcoming over the years when it comes to roster spots for their European free agent signings.
Nikita Zaitsev joined the squad as Morgan Rielly’s defence partner for the first run of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner in the NHL that led to a playoff round against the Washington Capitals. Andreas Borgman and Calle Rosen signed with the Leafs that May, where the former saw more playing time with 48 games the following season. Next came centre Par Lindholm and defenceman Igor Ozhiganov who got ample opportunities from then head coach Mike Babcock to make an impact. Illya Mikheyev joined up for the 2019/20 season and is a solid factor in the top nine, and now there is Mikko Lehtonen.
The nature of the season itself has gotten in the way of a lot of things. Without a preseason, Sheldon Keefe hasn’t had the time to settle players into the lineup and/or get a longer look at roster experiments. Because of that, Lehtonen got a full run in the exhibition Blue vs. White game but couldn’t draw into the lineup initially unless he was the 7th defenceman, as Travis Dermott got the initial nod from the coaching staff.
The 27-year-old has seen four games with the Leafs: two as a 7th and two as the sole left-shot on the bottom-pair with Zach Bogosian. He’s averaged 9:22 a night, with his highest TOI being 13:03 in Calgary on the 26th.
The power play was an area we all assumed Lehtonen would make the most impact, and it paid off against the Oilers. Zach Hyman’s 3-3 tying goal earned Lehtonen his first NHL point in a similar way to how he’s always produced. A middle ice shot from the point leading to a deflection and bounces.
Evaluating Lehtonen has to go beyond offence. He walked into the organization after putting up 17 goals and 49 points in 60 games last season with Jokerit and had 17 points in 17 games this year ahead of the NHL’s 2020/21 season. It also comes down to the fact that Keefe is aware of and paying attention to Lehtonen’s game at 5v5. That sounds obvious, but it leads directly to this quote from the Leafs coach on the defenceman.
Keefe said again that he doesn't think Mikko Lehtonen looks comfortable unless he's on the power play. The hope is that now they have enough video of him in NHL games that they can help him learn and take steps forward— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) January 31, 2021
That is a spicy meatball, but one to look into, so I re-watched three Leafs games (vs the Oilers on the 20th, vs the Flames on the 26th and vs the Oilers on the 30th) focusing specifically on Lehtonen, the moves he makes, the moves he doesn’t make, and the things that would likely irk Keefe a bit. Here are some observations.
Usage in Zone and with Personnel
This should come as no surprise, but the Leafs have tried to make Lehtonen’s transition to NHL play as smooth as possible. That has come with playing him in “easier” situations and gently increasing the difficulty as things progress. Because of that, Lehtonen had most of his starts in the offensive zone faceoffs, during offensive advancement or legitimate offensive zone pressure. There would be times when Lehtonen would be sent out for a neutral zone draw, but that would usually be closer to the offensive blueline; otherwise, the Leafs would use Muzzin or Brodie.
Although Lehtonen and Bogosian were sent out together most of the time, 46 would see time with 8 and 78. This made sense for the games where Lehtonen was the 7th D, but it would continue in the other games where he was the sole 6th defenceman. On the other end of things, when it wasn’t going well for Lehtonen or if the Leafs were trying to hold on to a lead or play with a tie, Keefe would run 5D for a significant stretch.
At first, this would happen in the late stretches of the second period or the second half of the third, but it began happening earlier in games. Two that come to mind were in their recent loss to the Oilers where Muzzin was going out with Bogosian instead of Lehtonen, who was sitting before getting the nod to head out with Rielly.
As Keefe mentioned in that quote, Lehtonen does look the most effective on the power play. The second unit with William Nylander, John Tavares, Zach Hyman and Jason Spezza were getting extra looks ahead of the first unit, but Lehtonen has also seen time with the top squad.
One that stands out was against the Flames, where Rielly and Simmonds came off for Lehtonen and Nylander after 27 seconds. Two similar plays started with Lehtonen finishing with chances on net for both Tavares and Matthews.
You also notice that Lehtonen tends to be patient, and I’ll get more into that later.
Another useful thing is a little stop-fake that he uses mid-stride. You can see it in the second GIF before he sets up Tavares. He walks towards the slot and stops for a second, seeing if there’s a shooting lane before distributing the puck. It’s one of those comfortable attributes Keefe was likely talking about. Here’s another example against the Oilers on Sunday.
Lehtonen is always looking to and moving his head to create something, and one that stands out to me is a tic-tac-toe play he began against the Oilers with Nylander and Tavares.
You also have to consider that the two chances from Matthews to Marner and Hyman on the power play began with Lehtonen’s shot-pass to him down low.
Lehtonen’s patience when in possession of the puck is something I’ve noticed a lot, and it goes beyond the stop-fake I mentioned earlier. He tends to hold on to the puck and won’t get rid of it for the sake of getting rid of it. If Lehtonen sees something, he’ll make a move.
This has worked in Lehtonen’s favour as the opposition aggressively pursues him and he uses his body to separate them from the puck to pass it off later.
It’s also allowed him to draw a penalty. Lehtonen could’ve backhanded the puck around as soon as he got it, but instead, he holds on to it for a bit, and Ryan takes a penalty trying to intercept the pass.
The Shots and Passes
It’s a mixed bag when you look at Lehtonen’s pass and shot selection. Usually, his passes are good and create shot attempts for a teammate or are made from the defensive zone and stretch the ice out, leading to an aggressive forecheck. There are also ill-advised passes and shots that rarely make it to the net.
This plagued Lehtonen a lot early on, where the majority of his shots were either wide of the net or blocked by the opposition. He also has a number of fan attempts that happen too often to be a coincidence.
And then there are the moments where his patience turned against him. A recent example was his pass to no-one after being closed down by the Oilers. The easy play would’ve been to rim it around the net here, so the patience works for both good and evil.
One of the worst things to see is for both defencemen to cover the same person on a rush against. Thankfully, Lehtonen doesn’t do that. You can tell he communicates as much as he can with his defence partner. Whether it’s on a created rush or being back when his partner is up higher, Lehtonen is reliable in that regard.
(With Bogosian covering the puck carrier, Lehtonen tracks the man heading to the net)
What Lehtonen needs to work on are those instances where he is the one covering the puck carrier. In that same game, he hangs back but is beat by Milan Lucic on the entry as he criss-crosses with Sam Bennett, which allows the Flames to establish pressure. When people talk about needing to get used to the speed of the game, this one of the things they’re talking about it.
In this case, it’s a matter of coordinating timing with positioning when the pace is increased. Otherwise, I’d give Lehtonen a nod in this department as he stays with the opposition and gets in the way of lanes on most occasions.
(Gets in the way of the advancing puck and sends the puck to a safer area.)
(Poke check to deny the zone entry.)
What Sheldon Keefe Hates
As I’ve mentioned throughout, it’s not all bright skies with Mikko Lehtonen. There are things he’s done which has likely affected how much Keefe makes use of him in games. Losing body position and battles are one of the key ones. Let’s take the 26th against the Flames.
Lehtonen comes out for a switch in transition around the 14:58 mark of the third with Muzzin. The puck is being sent to the Leafs' end, and although Lehtonen gets to it first, Backlund outmuscles him and gets the puck, which leads to offensive-zone pressure for Calgary.
Mind you, this is after Lehtonen didn’t have the best performance on Lucic’s goal by not doing enough to get Rasmus Andersson off the puck. It’s a weird bounce as the puck goes off Kerfoot’s stick to Lucic in the slot, but it’s not the best look.
Aside from the goal-saving move that led to a penalty shot for the Oilers, Lehtonen also had some blunders, including soft rims and clearing attempts in the d-zone that allowed the opposition to maintain possession.
These are some of the things Keefe and the rest of the coaching staff will sit Lehtonen down with. There’s been a lot more good than bad, in my opinion, and the bad can be improved with more playing time and comfort with the game. Unfortunately, that’s the issue.
Lehtonen is fighting with two other defencemen for ice time in Travis Dermott and Rasmus Sandin, who hasn’t seen a single game yet. It seems like the nature of things, for the time being, will be to improve when you can and to not let the time off negatively impact your progression.
Is Keefe right that Lehtonen is only comfortable on the power play? It does seem so as the play is slowed down, and he can freely make his plays and take his looks. But I don’t think it means he can never extend that comfort to the rest of the ice.