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Artturi Lehkonen’s contract negotiation could be all about the term

Will it be a short-term deal to give the Finn a chance to prove himself, or a long-term pact to reward what he already has?

NHL: Ottawa Senators at Montreal Canadiens Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

Artturi Lehkonen signed his entry-level contract three seasons after he was drafted, entrusted into the care of Liiga’s KalPa and the SHL’s Frölunda HC, going on an incredible playoff run in his final months overseas.

Three years of NHL action later, that contract is coming to an end. Lehkonen’s second pact with the Montreal Canadiens will be based on his performance with the club, as well as what he is projected to offer over the term of the deal.

After his rookie season, and a short but productive playoff appearance, he seemed destined for a quick rise in the organization. His sophomore season saw lower numbers than his first, though a back injury limited his effectiveness on the offensive side of the puck. Healthy for the final year of his contract, the expectation was that he’d have a bounceback campaign.

It turned out to be his best season in terms of points, with a new career high of 31, but the total was just three more than in his rookie year. A significant portion of the season was spent in a slump where he was unable to score, and the result was the lowest personal production of his career; one goal less than what he had in 16 fewer games last season.

There are questions about how much of an impact he will truly have at the top level, especially with a few younger players getting close to challenging for roster spots.

With that production being a factor, Evolving Hockey currently projects his most likely contract extension to be just a two-year term, with a cap hit of about $3 million. That range sees several players with plenty of potential, but who haven’t yet blossomed into consistent producers in the NHL. Forwards under the age of 25 with similar salary and term projections include Pavel Buchnevich, Sam Bennett, Jakub Vrana, and Kevin Fiala.

There’s much more to consider in contract negotiations than just performance versus a subset of other pending restricted free agents, but the comparison is a good starting point to see how Lehkonen stacks up.

Five-on-five stats (2016-17 - 2018-19)

Player Age GP G/60 P/60 CF% SF% SCF%
Player Age GP G/60 P/60 CF% SF% SCF%
Artturi Lehkonen 23.9 221 0.75 1.52 53.0 51.6 54.9
Pavel Buchnevich 24.1 179 0.73 1.79 48.2 48.0 48.7
Sam Bennett 22.9 234 0.58 1.38 51.6 50.4 52.3
Jakub Vrana 23.3 176 0.95 1.88 50.5 50.7 50.9
Kevin Fiala 22.8 217 0.90 1.77 54.6 54.2 54.6
GP: games played; G/60: goals per 60 minutes; P/60: points per 60 minutes; CF%: Corsi-for percentage; SF%: shots-for percentage; SCF%: scoring-chances-for pergcentage 5v5 stats via Natural Stat Trick

At five-on-five over the past three years, Lehkonen compares favourably with his peers. Despite some well-documented slumps, his even-strength production is respectable. He and Fiala are a level above the others with respect to their underlying metrics, suggesting that they are the ones who are (or will be) key elements of their teams. Fiala has already seen some results from those strong advanced stats, with a 48-point campaign already under his belt, followed up by a 39-point effort in 2018-19.

Not surprisingly, the two also have the highest probabilities of the group to sign longer-term deals. Fiala is given a 29% chance of agreeing to a six-year deal with the Minnesota Wild. Lehkonen’s likelihood of being locked in for the same number of years is 21.8% (versus 36.0% for the two-year option).

At the very minimum, these two players will provide quality minutes for their teams, having a positive impact on the ability to win games. Fiala’s strengths lie more on offence, while Lehkonen is currently inclined more to the defensive side, last season trusted with nearly 200 minutes on the penalty kill.

Marc Bergevin will be of two minds when dealing with this situation. With the underlying numbers that allow Lehkonen to be an everyday player even without putting the puck in the net, a long-term contract has a low chance of backfiring. Lehkonen’s play isn’t going to fall off a cliff before he turns 29, and his offence can’t plummet much lower than its current level. Should the offensive breakout that the stats and previous performance suggest is in him happen early into a long-term deal, the general manager has a star player locked up for much less than he’s worth.

With a two-year term, Bergevin saves money at a time when he’s looking to put together a contending team, and doesn’t close off one roster spot that could be snatched by an up-and-coming player who shows more promise. However, increased production for Lehkonen on top of his great metrics is going to have the price of the following contract rocket up, which could have more serious long-term ramifications.

Lehkonen also has to weigh the options. A six-year term brings substantial financial security and allows him to settle in for the foreseeable future. With a few health concerns already in his career (concussions in his Junior days and the back injury last season) a long-term deal gives him some insurance.

He also knows he has more offence to offer at the NHL level, and therefore a two-year term gives him the time to prove it and cash in with a siginificantly higher salary in the near future.

With Lehkonen now eligible for arbitration, these questions could be answered by a third party in the summer. However, given the important role Lehkonen has on the team, Bergevin may want to get his most pressing contract situation taken care of before moving on to other matters this off-season.