For me it has never been a question of whether or not Artturi Lehkonen could earn a spot on the Montreal Canadiens. For me the question was whether or not he could earn a spot where he could make an impact. As Jack Han explained in a recent article, the main issue for me was whether management would put him in a spot to utilize his strengths rather than having to work his way up the lines in order to have a chance to make a difference.
Looking back over the last few seasons of Lehkonen’s development with TPS and KalPa in Finland’s professional league, Liiga, and with Frölunda in the SHL, his development has been trending upwards even after making the jump to a better team or league. So why wouldn’t "the competitor" (as Frölunda’s assistant coach Pär Johansson called him) make it in NHL?
Following his performance in last season’s SHL playoffs, where he broke Frölunda’s playoff record set by none other than Daniel Alfredsson in 2005, it was clear that Lehkonen was ready for the big step across the Atlantic. Spending a full summer in Sweden preparing and building up for the camp did him nothing but good even if he did confess that he didn’t “know how [former teammate Mattias] Janmark did it last year" on the PuckDrop podcast.
Plenty of people surrounding Lehkonen have offered up their thoughts about his readiness for NHL. After being eliminated from the playoffs by Frölunda, fellow Montreal prospect Lukas Vejdemo said: “He flew around the ice all throughout the quarter-finals, and in my honest opinion he was the best player on Frölunda’s roster. He is smart, sly like a fox, always in position, and he is an insanely good finisher.”
Lehkonen’s teammates followed suit. “I think he is an amazing hockey player, and I have the feeling that he has every chance possible to make the team in Montreal,” said Detroit Red Wings prospect Christoffer Ehn. “You can see it in him, and with the playoffs he had. It doesn’t matter to Artturi what day it is, he comes to the rink every day to get better. It is my belief that it will go well for him. You hope on a personal level that we get to keep him [in Frölunda], but for him I hope he makes it big.”
One of the more outspoken players in Frölunda, former linemate Robin Figren didn’t hold back either. "Without knowing Montreal's roster from top to bottom, I can’t say he should make the team, but I think the stats speak for themselves after last season.”
There were words of praise from his coaches as well. When I spoke to Roger Rönnberg, Frölunda’s head coach, he was honest and compared Lehkonen to a former player. "I can compare him with Janmark, who made the team out of camp for the Dallas Stars last season. I see that Artturi is starting to have that strength to win the battles on the ice to make it in the NHL. He is approaching the NHL with great strides."
Robert Ohlsson, former assistant coach of Frölunda and now coach of Djurgården, spoke to EOTP about Lehkonen after this weekend’s game in Gothenburg, "Lehkonen is a fantastic player, he is a competitor, he battles hard. His hockey sense is great; it's top notch. The only small thing that he might lack to be a top-line NHL player is his top speed, but he has worked on that, too."
But the highest praise came from forever Montrealer and former Captain, Saku Koivu, when he was a guest at PuckDrop Europe: "I am very confident that Artturi Lehkonen will take a spot in Montreal's lineup."
As you can see, it all boiled down to whether or not Lehkonen would get the chance to make an impact. Michel Therrien’s first comments about his lines at the golf tournament seemed to indicate that he wouldn’t. The first two lines were set, and Shaw was supposed to be on the second line with Tomas Plekanec and Alexander Radulov. But in the last couple of pre-season games, Lehkonen took over that second-line role, partly thanks to Shaw’s suspension, and that gave him the opportunity to prove himself. And he did.
If Lehkonen gets to keep the position, there is no doubt that he will make a huge impact on Montreal’s season. If he returns to a third-line position with David Desharnais, he will get to take a more defensive role and, while he will probably still make an impact, it won’t be as visible to the naked eye. If this happens, it might require him to adopt to a role similar to that of his first season with Frölunda where he took the defensive responsibilities on a line with Janmark and Figren. While Lehkonen is good in that role, it isn’t where his qualities shine.
If you want to make sure a player gets to make an impact, you play him where he gets the best chance to succeed, that place is with Plekanec and Radulov. It was Radulov that Lehkonen watched in his national men’s team debut with the Leijonat in the Channel One Cup. When I pointed out that I thought he would play together with the big Russian in Montreal, L’Arttiste replied with his trademark laugh.
It doesn’t look insane anymore.