The team would be getting back Carey Price, the best goaltender in the world. It had also traded a world-class defender for another world-class defender and had signed the most interesting free agent available in Alexander Radulov. A small Finnish player who’s name that no one really could pronounce wasn’t really showing up on the radar, despite a scoring title in the SHL post-season last year.
Seven months and another solid professional playoff performance later, it was Lehkonen that stepped up to the plate for the Canadiens and was one of the most impressive players for the team in their six-game playoff series. He scored two goals against the New York Rangers; the same amount as Radulov to co-lead the team: one a one-timer after smartly getting into position in the slot, the other a wraparound goal after getting his own rebound.
We saw the kind of player he was in the SHL playoffs last season, and the fact is that it seems that one thing that Lehkonen possesses, other than his fantastic work ethic and understanding of the game, is that he has an extra gear when the playoffs come around. This is the time when Lehkonen really shines, not only as one of his team’s best scorers, but with his excellent play all over the ice that has many impressed.
What is it about his development that has allowed him to find success? For starters, he played pro hockey as a 16-year-old in the Finnish Liiga, where he won the Rookie of the Year award. He has always been focused on long-term success.
When interviewed by EOTP in the summer of 2015, he explained that moving to Sweden to play in the SHL was a step up league-wise, but also that it was a preparation for a move across the ocean for a career in the NHL. Moving to Sweden made him learn how to be in a foreign country and deal with the small things, like paying bills, learning a new language, and getting a car; things we take for granted when we are in our native country.
The preparation also meant being taught hockey from arguably one of the best coaches outside the NHL: Frölunda’s Roger Rönnberg. He spoke with EOTP about Lehkonen last August.
"We knew when he arrived here that he is a very competent ice hockey player who wasn’t there physically yet. Now he is there. He is approaching the level he needs to play against bigger and bigger players. He looks incredibly strong out there."
Despite the praise, his blip on radar of many in North America didn’t register, as few knew who Roger Rönnberg was. It wasn’t until Saku Koivu spoke with EOTP that the Montreal media and fans really took notice.
Since Captain Koivu said it, this quote has become part of Montreal legend.
Lehkonen had a good year. His 18 regular-season goals put him ninth among rookies, and that’s something to be impressed with for a third-line winger in his first year of North American hockey, let alone at the NHL level.
Still, the playoffs are Lehkonen’s domain, he finished the first round tied for 13th in goals scored, and tied for 22nd in points (fourth among rookies) all while maintaining his third-line role.
What makes Lehkonen so good in the playoffs? Lukas Vejdemo, another Habs prospect currently developing his game in Europe, probably hit the nail on the head last year when he said to EOTP: "He is smart, sly like a fox, always in position, and he is an insanely good finisher.”
If you look at the above goal, he is moving all the time within the small box that New York sets up, always getting away from the nearest defender. Second look at his stick: he never lifts it off the ice. Lehkonen is ready to pounce in a fraction of a second.
This is vintage (if you can use that word with a rookie) Lehkonen. These are the skills that both Rönnberg and Vejdemo spoke about, and this is what Saku Koivu saw in order to make such a bold statement about Lehkonen’s success.
While the feeling surrounding the Canadiens is one of disappointment after a first-round exit, Lehkonen has emerged into the spotlight and will be a key member of the team for a long time.