Even if you are a fan of Artturi Lehkonen, at times he’s frustrating to watch. Whether he’s hitting the post or missing a prime scoring chance, there are instances where he leaves you wanting more offensively.
But unlike players whose value is linked solely to their offensive play, Lehkonen provides the Canadiens with tons of positive value, even in the middle of a 20-game goal-scoring slump. His defensive ability makes those around him better, and it has to be said that there’s value in getting those scoring chances to begin with, even if they’re not converted.
We looked in depth at Lehkonen’s numbers. He does a lot of things well. But so often, people look at a forward like that who doesn’t score as often as we’d like as a disappointment. He’s also a victim of his environment. People use the Canadiens’ depth against Lehkonen, perhaps more harshly than they do anyone else on the roster.
He’s not Paul Byron, people say. He’s not Tomas Tatar, he’s interchangeable with a lot of the Canadiens’ wingers like Joel Armia and Andrew Shaw. He’s not as shiny as Nick Suzuki - although there was a time he was the emerging prospect on a great playoff run. But make no mistake: even if Lehkonen (or any of the other players mentioned) play on the fourth line, that doesn’t make them fourth-line NHLers. In reality, most are really good middle-six forwards on any team.
Lehkonen may also be a victim of the expectations placed on him while he was still playing for Frölunda in Sweden. He was a scoring machine, especially in the playoffs in 2015-16 where he had eight goals and 11 assists in 16 games to set a new team scoring record. The previous record was set by a 32-year-old Daniel Alfredsson.
He hasn’t found that level of scoring at the NHL level, and no one expected him to come in and perform at that level either. But you don’t put up numbers like that without some baseline skill level, and Lehkonen has that. He’s also put up numbers in clutch moments in his NHL career too. In his rookie year, he had four points in six playoff games in a series against the New York Rangers. This year, in the final eight games of the season he had three goals and three assists when the team needed it most (we’ll just forget that whole guarantee thing). He’s a guy who can be relied on in the playoffs or in big games.
In Lehkonen, they have a guy who can score but has been relied on for his defence - much more than a typical player in his early 20’s and his offence suffered as a result. But this Canadiens team is set up to be a much more balanced offensive team than a year ago and a stretch that saw Lehkonen with one goal over 22 games which was part horrendous luck, part linemates that weren’t offensively slanted, isn’t likely to happen again.
Craig Button was part of the Calgary Flames management group that traded for Craig Conroy from the St. Louis Blues looking for a centre for Jarome Iginla, Conroy had never been in an offensive role in the NHL. But Button remembered Conroy being a scorer in junior when he was still scouting the draft for the Dallas Stars. His philosophy was that he didn’t think Conroy forgot how to score or play in a scoring role. He ended up being right.
If you don’t put players in a position to score, don’t be surprised if they don’t score, even if they have that ability.
The Canadiens, it should be noted, always controlled most of the shots when Lehkonen was on the ice, even when the offence dried up. And that’s the key. Lehkonen has a positive impact most of the time he’s on the ice. And while he used to be relied on to cover up defensive deficiencies of his teammates, additions of Armia, Phillip Danault, and Jesperi Kotkaniemi means that he can just play his game.
His strongest production of the season came on a line with Andrew Shaw and Max Domi down the stretch.
He doesn’t have to score in order to help the Montreal Canadiens win, and that’s a hard thing to judge - especially when it comes to contract negotiations. But, as the team around him improves, he may start to score anyway.