After bursting onto the scene with an 18-goal rookie campaign, the young Finn has regressed in his second and third seasons, notching only 11 goals in each. Lehkonen, as has been acknowledged by fans, pundits, and coaches alike, does a whole slew of other things extremely well, but the question for the Piikkiö native eventually always circles back to: “why isn’t he scoring 20 goals yet?”
Contrary to popular belief, Lehkonen hasn’t forgotten how to score
The thing is, Lehkonen’s goal-scoring totals may be dictated by factors out of his control. First, if we look at even-strength scoring only, Lehkonen’s three-season totals become 15, eight, and 11. Second, his underlying metrics — shot rates, chance rates, and expected goals — have always remained stable, meaning that his goal count is ultimately reliant on usage and shooting luck. He is likely not the 10% shooter that he was in his rookie season, nor is he the 5% shooter that he was in his sophomore campaign.
So what is the underlying explanation behind Lehkonen’s goal-scoring booms and busts? Much of it can be explained by looking at his even-strength shooting-location and shot-selection profiles. In his rookie season, while the majority of his shots came from the net-front, Lehkonen also experienced success shooting from the high slot and around the faceoff dots. In fact, he counted almost as many goals (six) from that region as he did from the inner slot area (seven).
The following two seasons have not been so generous. In 2017-18, Lehkonen almost entirely abandoned the high slot, choosing instead to shoot almost exclusively from below the faceoff dots. This strategy, whether derived by the player or the coaching staff, failed to yield fruit. Lehkonen’s outer-home-plate goal count dropped to a mere two, without any compensatory increase in inner slot production (six).
There may be reason for optimism though. Lehkonen returned to a much more diverse shooting-location profile in 2018-19, and while he only scored three times from the regions which he ignored the year previous, he also hit three goalposts. Here’s where puck luck rears her head: in his rookie season, Lehkonen scored six times and hit zero posts; in his third season, three goals, three pings.
What dictates Lehkonen’s shot selection?
Having recognized the trend, the bigger problem is explaining the radical shift between the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons, as well as the swing back in 2018-19. First, the arrival of a new coaching staff, in tandem with the skills and proficiencies demonstrated by Lehkonen during his breakout rookie season, meant that the youngster’s role on the team would dramatically change in the following year.
Whereas Lehkonen had primarily played the role of finisher or roving sniper during his first year in North America, in Claude Julien’s first full season of his second tenure, the Finn became increasingly involved in transition and build-up play.
Lehkonen certainly excelled at it; his secondary and tertiary shot assists (passes leading to shots) statistic (BuildUp60) jumped from 37th percentile to 84th percentile, and his ability to create shots stemming from defensive-/neutral-zone passes (Trans60) ranked in the 99th percentile league-wide.
But his increased role in the build-up meant that he wasn’t able to pick and choose his shooting spots like before. To that end, the number of shots he created with passes across the slot or from behind the net decreased (98th to 61st percentile), and the number of shots he generated from receiving similar passes (iDZ60) plummeted (42nd percentile to sixth).
Given this, when the heatmap shows that Lehkonen increased his shot proportion from the slot area in 2017-18, one can infer that many of these were net-crashes, rebounds, or other plays more suited to Brendan Gallagher’s than Lehkonen’s skill set.
Another thing to note is that in 2016-17, Lehkonen’s primary linemate was Tomas Plekanec, with a rotating cast of third forwards including Alexander Radulov, Brian Flynn, Paul Byron, and Alex Galchenyuk. As such, Lehkonen neither had to be the primary shooter (most of the shots when Plekanec and Lehkonen were on the ice together came from the left side) nor the primary defensive-minded forward, allowing him more offensive freedom to find spots to use his excellent shot.
In 2017-18, Lehkonen’s primary linemates were now Galchenyuk and Jonathan Drouin, as Julien likely sought to use him as a defensive security blanket. While the three didn’t actually play together that much, Lehkonen was a fixture on either Drouin’s flank alongside Max Pacioretty, or across from Galchenyuk with Jacob de la Rose in the middle. Whether Drouin or Galchenyuk, Lehkonen’s offensive role was the same: drive the net and look for rebounds generated from either Pacioretty’s or Galchenyuk’s shot.
Going into last year, Lehkonen’s role was supposed to be the same. He started the season to the right of Drouin and Max Domi, and then later moved to the right of Jesperi Kotkaniemi. However, it became readily apparent that neither Domi nor (especially) Kotkaniemi would require the same sort of defensive handholding that Galchenyuk and Drouin had the year prior. Freed from a fully defensive mindset, Lehkonen’s play combined the goal-scoring skill of his first season with the transition passing acumen of his second, as evidenced by a career-high 20 even-strength assists, 13 of them primary.
What do the Habs want from Lehkonen?
Despite his tremendous versatility and the persistent evolution of his game, Lehkonen is not an elite hockey player. As such, while he can (and has) demonstrated proficiency in just about any singular aspect of the game, the more that Lehkonen is tasked to do, the less effective he becomes at every one of his responsibilities.
If Lehkonen is to hit 20 goals next season, it will likely only be because he has been freed from his defensive responsibilities by the coaching staff. Whether this reality is beneficial or detrimental for Lehkonen’s role on the team and importance to the club is up to the individual observer.
Special thanks to Ryan Stimson and Corey Sznajder for passing data compilation and visualization, Micah Blake McCurdy (www.hockeyviz.com) for shot maps, and Natural Stat Trick for goal, shot, and chance data.