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Artturi Lehkonen: A diamond that is being polished with care

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Martin Lapointe and Trevor Timmins called him Montreal’s most underrated prospect. Artturi Lehkonen has gone under the radar for many fans, as he isn’t a headline generator like his European counterpart Martin Réway, but, of the two, he might well be the player that breaks through faster in the North American market.

Frolunda HC

In order for people to understand what kind of gem Artturi Lehkonen actually is, I have taken a deeper look through his career to see what we can expect for the future in regards to his skill and development.

The Early Years

Lehkonen came up through the system of a classic hockey club: TPS Turku. TPS is a 10-time champion of SM-Liiga and is considered the most successful team in league history. One of its most notable alumni is former (and forever) Montreal Canadien Saku Koivu.

In 2009-10 he played in the TPS’s U16 team; the next year he managed the feat of playing for U16, U18, and U20 teams. He also got into both the Finland U16 and U17 teams, racking up points for each of the teams he played for. The next season he was given the chance to play for three of TPS's teams again, making the Senior team as a 17 year old.

Lehkonen made his debut season in Liiga as a 17-year-old with TPS, scoring four points in 18 matches, and scored his first goal with quick hands in tight to the goal (seen below). The only competition he didn’t register a point in as a professional rookie was the Liiga playoffs.

Liiga and the Jarmo Wasama memorial trophy

In 2012-13 Lehkonen changed teams to KalPa (Kupio), most likely as TPS seems to have started a rebuild and he wanted to play in a top team, and receiving playing time with better players must have been a driving factor to this move.

During that season Lehkonen notched 30 points in 45 games (14 goals, 16 assists), with another three points in four playoff games. In May 2012 he was drafted 57th overall in the annual KHL draft by SKA St. Petersburg. He suffered two concussions that year, the last one a really bad blindside hit from Jarkko Ruutu. While he wasn’t forced to miss a considerable amount of time from either, it made it more difficult for Lehkonen to move forward.

At the end of the season, Lehkonen was awarded the Jarmo Wasama Memorial Trophy (named after a talented young player who died in a car accident 1966) as Rookie of the Year in Finnish ice hockey. It was after this season that the Montreal Canadiens drafted Lehkonen in the second round, with the 55th selection.

With a season like that expectations were high for the young player, but things conspired against him in the following season. During the beginning of the 2014 World Junior Championship, where Finland won gold in a dramatic overtime win against Sweden on their rival's home ice, Lehkonen suffered an ankle injury that prevented him from playing the final 23 games of the season that remained for KalPa after the WJC.

A move across the Baltic Sea

During the spring of 2014, Frölunda and Artturi released the news that he had signed with the Swedish club for two seasons. The move offered an opportunity to test his skills abroad and to develop under Sweden's former U20 National coach Roger Rönnberg, so Lehkonen decided to leave the comforts of home.

There is some speculation in Finland that this move was partly because Lehkonen felt he would be better protected against future concussions in the Swedish rinks, he himself says it was the best move to prepare him for his ultimate goal of playing in the NHL. But whatever the reason, he became a trailblazer as young Finnish talent would normally either stay in Finland or go across the Atlantic to try their hand at an NHL training camp or continue their development in the AHL. Frölunda now has two other Finnish juniors in their system.

With seemingly no end to health issues, Lehkonen got hit with mononucleosis in the summer of 2014, and it was obvious he suffered from both that ailment as well as a new culture, and it did impede his play. He got to play with Mattias Janmark and Robin Figren on what would be considered Frölunda's second line.

While captaining the Finnish U20 team in the World Championships he didn’t perform to his own standards, whilst the whole Finland team really underperformed. It is at this time that he fell off the radar among the Canadiens faithful, the focus shifting to Martin Reway as his tournament for the ages drew in fans by the numbers, peaking when he scored a hat-trick in the Bell Centre.

Lehkonen struggled a bit at the end of the season in SHL, but still managed a hat trick versus powerhouse Skellefteå AIK in February. He followed that up with a hat trick in the playoffs against eventual winners Växjö in the semi-final.

He finished the season with 16 points over 47 games, but managed to become Frölunda's second-highest scorer in the playoffs with six points in 13 games, only beaten out by Janmark, who now plays in the NHL with the Dallas Stars.

The 2015-16 season

Lehkonen started the season red hot, doubtless the result of finally having a full pre-season behind him. His point production slowed down considerably with Janmark's move to Dallas, and his own move to the centre position. But for his development, it can’t be said those changes were negative.

Lehkonen looked comfortable as a centre, and performed well within the faceoff circle, and covered well defensively as the defensive play he had accumulated the previous season benefited him in the move to the center of the ice as well.

Over one-and-a-quarter seasons with Frölunda, Lehkonen has a 0.43 points-per-game average. By using Rob Vollman's equivalancy factors to determine where Lehkonen would be after 18 games in NHL, he'd be at  about the same level as Carl Hagelin, Viktor Stålberg, Devante Smith-Pelly, and Paul Stastny. Over an 82-game season Lehkonen would be somewhere around 20 points spread evenly between goals and assists.

Using this season's stats only, Lehkonen would have a .40 PPG average in the NHL [(12 points in 18 SHL games = 0.67 PPG) x 0.6 Vollmans factor SHL = 0.4 PPG NHL]. Over 18 games in NHL this season it would mean similar to Rickard Rakell, Andrej Sekera, Jason Pominville and Nikolay Kulemin at eight points. This without being boosted by being on the first power play unit or favourable zone starts, like Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Andreas Johnson has, and who has only three points more to show for it (at the time of writing).

Having also been moved around between wing and centre, and getting plenty of new people trying out for the open position with Lehkonen and Figren would also mean less consistency. It does look like Detroit prospect Christoffer Ehn has captured the centre position, as the last few games the line has remained the same. It will be interesting to see if there will be more consistency and output from Lehkonen in the coming weeks with more of a set forward line.

If Lehkonen continues at the same pace in SHL as right now, he would end up with the equivalent of 33 points over an 82-game NHL schedule.

Quite a few are sceptics when it comes to Lehkonen, and it is understandable, because if you only look at goals and assists it can be misleading, but having a 0.43 PPG average in one of the better leagues in the world, and this with some issues along the way, is impressive. While some people consider it a failure, I think it is unfair to the young Finn as you also have to remember that average has also been improved to a 0.67 PPG in SHL this season. That clearly shows that last year was a bit of an anomaly due to illness and adapting to a new culture, something Lehkonen mentioned himself in an interview with HabsEOTP.

Lehkonen has shown tenacity in the face of adversity. He has always taken calculated steps forward in order to reach his ultimate goal of playing in the NHL. He has changed his game when the coaches have asked him to be more flexible, and done it without hesitation. This speaks volumes for his drive and determination.

He is hell-bent on succeeding, and I have no doubt he will.