With Finnish prospect Artturi Lehkonen having signed his entry-level contract, it is time to have a look at where he should play in the Montreal Canadiens lineup.
It is important to realize that, according to the Collective Bargaining Agreement, Lehkonen is obliged to return to the SHL's Frölunda HC if he doesn't make the team, since he is under 22, was not a first-round draft selection, and has a valid contract in the Swedish league. Frölunda can choose to not exercise that right, but with as many as 14 players leaving Frölunda after their recent league championship, it would be unlikely for Frölunda to go that route.
Lehkonen has a legitimate chance to make the Habs roster, and will be in great position to do so, coming to rookie camp match-fit after preparations for the SHL's earlier start as well as the first few matches of Frölunda's defence of their Champions Hockey League title. That should give him an edge over some of the other rookies just getting back into their routines.
His deployment in Frölunda has varied. He is often listed as a third-liner, but in reality has seen some time on all lines. He has not needed easy zone starts to be effective, and has received some special teams assignments as well, on both the power play (1:45 per game, often on the second unit) and the penalty kill (0:49 per game).
Lehkonen has played centre, but thrives as a winger. He tends to focus too much on the defensive aspects of the game when playing in the middle in order to not blow his defensive responsibilities, not unlike what we saw from Alex Galchenyuk is his first few stints as a centreman.
This spring's SHL playoffs really showed his progress when he was more or less deployed on the first line with a strong supporting cast. The Canadiens need help with secondary scoring, and Lehkonen should therefore be given the best chance to contribute to the offence.
The McGill Rule brought up by Jack Han here on EOTP is something that needs to be considered, and the question will be if Michel Therrien wants to build his team as a top-six/bottom-six entity, or a top-nine/fourth line composition skewed toward the offensive side.
In a top-six/bottom-six scenario, I think it would be best to use him on the second line, and really give him the chance to succeed with his deadly shot and good hockey mind. In a setup where you have a top-nine lineup, he can be deployed on a more defensive third line, and could flourish with a good two-way centre (read: Lars Eller). That's a similar role to what Lehkonen's former Frölunda teammate, Mattias Janmark, sees with the Dallas Stars, and I would say that's the perfect example of how to let a prospect prosper.
To use him on a fourth line with minimal minutes and tough deployments is not the way to go. He is a player who creates offensive chances by working the puck from the boards and getting to the front of the net, and those are the abilities that will allow him to have success in the NHL. While his defensive game is quite solid, his skills would be wasted by playing with low-skill checkers in his own zone.
The conclusion would therefore be to play him in a setting to allow him to contribute to the offence. That is where the team will get its best look at who he is as a player, and properly evaluate his play for finalizing the roster in October. His coach in Frölunda, Roger Rönnberg, did just that, allowing Lehkonen some time to adapt to the game in a prominent role. That confidence in his young player paid off in the end, with the coach claiming his first SHL championship. It's a good lesson for the man behind the bench in Montreal.
What will the lines look like this year? What are your ideal lines for the Habs come October? Let us know in the comments.