I am back home and have had the time to visit the Campus Frölunda, the training facilities of Frölunda HC. The SHL team has several prospects from a few NHL teams currently playing and developing in an organization that excels at preparing young players for their professional careers, now overseen by Head Coach Roger Rönnberg.
I caught Artturi Lehkonen after a practice in one of the club's off days while the SHL's best-of-three eighth-finals were taking place. Frölunda had earned a bye on account of their second-place finish in the standings, and had the benefit of practising normally in order to be at peak level when their post-season begins. Frölunda will play Djurgården (with Lukas Vejdemo) in a best-of-seven series starting Wednesday, March 16.
Zeb: Hello Artturi, how did [practice] go?
Lehkonen: It was okay, I missed a couple of games [after taking a big hit in a game against Luleå], but now I am back. We are getting ready for the playoffs. It is nice to start the big games.
We met six months ago, and a lot has happened. A little more than 60 games later you might have had your breakthrough, contributing points — a lot more points than last year. You made your debut with the Finnish national team, and just a couple of weeks ago won the Champions Hockey League with Frölunda. Trevor Timmins called you the most underrated Montreal prospect last year, and it seems you have taken the step into the spotlight with the season so far. What has changed since last year when you arrived to Gothenburg?
Well, I mean I started last year kind of good, but then I had a little bit of a slump there. I didn't do much and it was hard on my confidence. But this year I have gotten a bit more weight on my body, more power in my body, so that has helped quite a bit to get better in the league. It has been a good year for me so far, but we still have some time left and some season goals to achieve. It is going to be fun where we end up!
Six game-winning goals, do you have a few more lined up for the playoffs?
Yes, I've got more lined up. I was just saving them at the end of the season.
You added a few kilos, as you said, and it has obviously benefitted you through the season. Previously you mostly used your balance as a weapon, but now you have added weight to it. What do you weigh now, as the official site has 74 kilos?
Yeah, it's not 74 kilos anymore! My match weight is 80.5 kilos, a bit up and down from there, but 80.5 kg is my usual weight.
You just signed a one-year extension with Frölunda.
Did you look at Andreas Johnson (Toronto Maple Leafs) and Mattias Janmark (Dallas Stars) as examples to stay in regards to that extra year?
Of course. It has worked out for them really well, and I think it will be good for me to stay another year. We will see how it turns out, but that's the choice I made, and I am really happy I get the opportunity to stay here.
Did the Montreal Canadiens ever offer you a contract, or are they playing it cool?
They are playing it cool! Haha!
How much do you hear from Montreal in regards to your development, your training and your play? Are they leaving it up to Frölunda to work with you?
I mean, I hear from them every now and then. More often than not it is the European scouts that are talking to me. Martin Lapointe was here for about five days to a week. I have been in touch with them throughout the season and they have been looking at my games, so we will see how that turns out.
Are you planning to go over for the development camp this summer?
Yes of course!
And what about the rookie camp?
I am not sure. We will see how things turn out, I am playing it cool.
What makes Frölunda such a good place for developing ice hockey players, looking through a long line with Henrik Lundqvist and Erik Karlsson as outstanding NHL players now?
Well, one thing that stands out to me is they have great facilities here and they are really using these facilities the right way. You see all these young guys ... they have the passion in their eyes, like they want to move forward all the time. And it is great and fun to see them coming in at 7 AM in the morning. I used to do that back in the day, but now I am just thinking 'man, that would be hard to do all over again.' It is really nice to see them practise so hard all through the year.
Frölunda has this idea that we practice hard; practice should be harder than the games. I think that has been a big part of the success.
How is Roger Rönnberg as a coach? Can you describe him?
He is a demanding coach. Of course you have to perform every night and if you are not, he is the honest coach that will play the guys that are hot. I like that. If you are hot you play; if you don't do your part, then you are not playing as much. I really respect that.
What about his style? Looking at practices, he seems to be coaching players: talking individually, correcting mistakes, and pointing out good things, whereas other coaches run the drills.
Yes, that's pretty much spot on. He watches the bigger picture. If he sees something he isn't satisfied with, he will point it out, and you will hear about it.
You have moved over to play centre once more....
Yeah, that has been okay. I mean, it is a good thing if you can play as a centre also, but I was back to being a winger today, so we will see how long it goes on for.
You had a bit of a slump coinciding with below-average play from Frölunda. You did not manage to stay with Skellefteå and overtake them in the standings. How do you work through that, both as a team and you individually?
You just have to bounce back from it. You need that character to go for it. Now we will need it to challenge Skellefteå for the title. We have to go game by game, series by series, and not think too far ahead. You got to do your best every game, starting from day one in the playoffs.
You have some more Finnish guys here now: Ilonen and Vesalainen ... did you have a hand in it?
Yeah... Yes! That has been a blast! They came here in the summer. Last year I was the only Finn, so I was really excited, like 'hey we are getting some more Finns; we will rule this place soon.'
Why did you choose Gothenburg and the SHL rather than the Liiga?
I had already played two seasons in SM-Liiga so for me it was important to see some new things and how the game was in Sweden. I have always admired how Swedes play the game. They are so fast compared to SM-Liiga in Finland. I thought it would be a good decision for me, and I have never regretted that decision.
Just a few more questions Artturi and I'll let you head for the showers. The debut in the national team. We spoke about it, and it more or less happened as we envisioned: Izvestia tournament (Channel One Cup), your strong start of the season drawing [Kari] Jalonen's attention. How was it to make your debut in one of the most storied and classic tournaments, albeit in Prague this year rather than Moscow?
Of course it was an amazing feeling: it is the men's national team. I have played a lot of national games all through my career in the juniors, but it was an amazing experience to be part of the senior team. In the second game I got to see guys like [Ilya] Kovalchuk and [Alexander] Radulov, and you are a bit like "Oh my God! What am I doing here?" It was fun, and seeing how good these guys are, and seeing how far away the top of the European hockey really is [Finland lost 8-1, so it was a lot to absorb]. It really was a good experience for me.
You played with a former Montreal Canadien, Joonas Nättinen.
Yeah Joonas! I have been talking with him quite a bit about Montreal, since he has been there, and he only had positive things to say. He was really happy that they gave him the chance, to let him see how it is. Of course he has a few regrets, mostly thinking that he could have done something more [to get another chance], but he has nothing but good things to say about Montreal.
How much do you follow Montreal during a season from here?
This year I have really been following them quite a bit as there have been quite a few guys that I know that have been called up. They have had a tough season, so many injuries: Price and Gallagher ... almost the two biggest players on the team. They get injured, you start losing a few games, you lose a bit of confidence ... it is not easy to bounce back from that. The had a big slump and it was quite hard to follow even from afar. Now they still fight, it's pride. It's great to see.
What about the two Finns that will go high in the draft: [Patrik] Laine and [Jesse] Puljujärvi?
I don't know who will go higher, it really just depends on the team. But I really like how both of them are playing, Laine is more of a classic sniper. He does so many sweet things with the puck it is really fun to see him play. Puljujärvi is more the artist. He has those silky mitts. He'll do the dangles, and it is so much fun seeing these two guys play in the SM-Liiga so young, and still scoring a lot of goals.
Thank you Artturi, it's always a pleasure to have a conversation with you. Best of luck in the playoffs!
In regards to Artturi's season with Frölunda, he finished 28th in the league in scoring with 33 points (16 goals, 17 assists). What stands out, however, is the fact that only seven of those points came on the power play (two goals, five assists). Lehkonen also had six game-winning goals, placing him second in the entire SHL.
Lehkonen took that step forward that most of us following European hockey expected him to. It will be interesting to see if he can continue the play in the more competitive part of the season that is the playoffs. Last year he was Frölunda's second-best scorer, after Mattias Janmark, in the post-season.
Once more a big thank you goes out to Frölunda for the open and friendly reception I received.