Let’s be real: Lukas Vejdemo wasn’t the first one on the call-up list in Laval. Even if the young Swede was, by all reports, playing his heart out in the American Hockey League, others were outproducing him.
That being said, especially under Joël Bouchard, recalls are also determined by merit and work ethic. Vejdemo’s intensity didn’t go unnoticed. The Montreal Canadiens infirmary filled, the club became depleted, and the forward finally got his chance.
Probably still filled with the adrenaline of the first few NHL games, Vejdemo has seized that chance. He is showing he can not only hold his own, but make a clear positive impact against some of the top players in the world.
He’s not doing it by attempting to dangle through the legs of a Victor Hedman or Ryan McDonagh. He has stayed close to his identity: simple and effective. The offensive flashes can come later. For now, he disturbs the opposition and capitalizes on changes of possession.
The two sequences below illustrate the strengths of Vejdemo quite well. In the first one, as the first man on the forecheck, he takes hard strides, identifies the side the defencemen will use for the breakout, and immediately pressures their play. He doesn’t over-commit. Stopping and starting, he follows opposing movements, leading with his stick, aiming to knock the puck away by making contact with the opponent’s.
Vejdemo successfully brushes against Hedman’s blade, deflecting the pass he intended off target, and then pressures a second puck-carrier into making a long, wide rim that slides all the way to Jeff Petry.
The Swede circles out of the offensive zone and re-enters to follow the break-in of his teammates. He doesn’t gun for the net immediately — Dale Weise is already doing that — he controls his speed and arrives in the slot at just the right time to shoot a rebound.
Vejdemo shows some of the same good elements in the second sequence. He strips an opponent of the puck and cuts a passing lane to a second. The lack of options has the Tampa Bay Lightning turn the puck over. The forward then does what the opposition couldn’t: he finds multiple passing outlets under pressure. He keeps the offence alive and creates a couple of scoring chances in the process.
Plenty of NHLers have made careers out of the abilities Vejdemo has displayed in the past two games. His affinity for disruption, his short passing game, and his sense of offensive timing has him control the play when he’s on the ice.
The Swede doesn’t have to look very far for a model for his game. Artturi Lehkonen, another ex-SHLer, has earned a ton of top-six minutes over of his career by playing the exact same way. Sure, Lehkonen has scored goals from beautiful wrist shots from far away (he really has), but they are now a rarity, and not something the team really expects out of him. Coaches have all loved the left-winger because of his work ethic and his reliability. He complements almost any line combination; he’s versatile and fills a defensive role.
Of course, the secret of Lehkonen, and of any other NHLer for that matter, is consistency. The team will have to evaluate Vedjemo’s ability to play at a high level for an extended period of time, maybe over other call-ups down the line. But I’m willing to bet that the type of game the Swede has showed in his last two outings has already endeared him to Claude Julien.
Another factor that helps Vejdemo’s case is the chemistry his line showed last night. Julien wants to be able to trust his fourth line, and not only was it worthy of that thrust, it barely played in its own end the entire night.
The three also created scoring chances with great puck support and offensive spacing. In other words, they didn’t step on each other’s toes. They attacked open ice and gave each other good cycling options. It’s how they managed to play keepaway against the first pairing and offensive trio of Tampa for a while.
Another line that had good offensive looks? Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s. The trio didn’t control the play the same way when on the ice, and spent more time scrambling defensively, but they came close to jamming a few pucks in during the game.
The coaching staff should give more time to the duo of Ryan Poehling and Kotkaniemi. As it often happens for rookies, the former seemed to have lost the playmaking ability that made him successful at the college level in the last few weeks. But it’s not far away. We saw some of it last night. Time with other talented forwards is exactly what he needs to rekindle his passing skills. If he goes back to only checking, it might be a while before it resurfaces. The Habs need offence, and they need it now with all the injuries.
With time, the two youngsters should get better at reading off each other. Potential breakdowns in coverage won’t be as much of a concern anymore. Both of them have proven themselves to be sound defensive forwards in the past. There is no reason to believe they couldn’t find chemistry away from the puck, as well.