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The Canadiens should tread lightly if trading Artturi Lehkonen

The Finnish winger should have a higher price tag than most would expect.

Montreal Canadiens v Boston Bruins Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images

As of this writing, Artturi Lehkonen is on pace to set a career high in points in his sixth season with the Montreal Canadiens. Sitting at 19 points through 41 games, he could see himself close to 40 by the end of the year, eclipsing his previous high of 31 through 82 games in 2018-19.

Former EOTP boss Marc Dumont pointed out some interesting stats in his piece for the team’s official website the other day. Lehkonen’s 2.14 points per 60 minutes this season put him at 31st in the entire NHL among left-wingers, and his 1.51 assists per 60 put him at 19th. If you take into account only primary assists, he ranks 10th. Having his best offensive season in what could be the team’s worst ever is definitely a factor in all the trade interest.

But points are likely not the main reason that teams like the New York Rangers are reportedly poking around about his availability.

At even strength, he currently leads the Canadiens in several key categories. His expected goals-for (58.54%), scoring-chances-for (56.39%), and high-danger-chances-for (58.99%) percentages are all the best on the team for players with over 200 minutes played. This on a team which has abysmal numbers in those categories: 44.92% xGF, 45.45% SCF, and 46.21% HDCF.

He has always been known to Canadiens fans as a steady defensive presence, but he’s on a new level this season. His numbers are great despite having zero consistency in terms of linemates, and playing virtually everywhere in the top nine.

Of course there should be interest in his services, but what kind of return should the Canadiens be expecting if they choose to deal him?

Comparables

There should be no shortage of suitors for Lehkonen, as virtually any contender could fit a defensively responsible winger with a reasonable cap hit into its lineup. Assuming that multiple teams will be interested, the price is key.

We could look within the somewhat recent trade history of the Canadiens to find a comparable asset, as Lars Eller was also a defensively responsible forward who didn’t have gaudy point totals. The Habs moved him at the 2016 NHL Entry Draft for two second-round picks — using one in 2017 to select Joni Ikonen, and trading the other to the Oilers — from the Washington Capitals.

There is a key difference in that this trade was executed at the draft. Contending teams mid-season or at the deadline are more likely to pay up, since they are gearing up for a Stanley Cup run. Perhaps a better comparable is that of the Blake Coleman trade in 2019-20.

Coleman is four years older than Lehkonen, and has seen similar offensive output through his career, with a high of 36 points coming in 2018-19. He had one year left on his deal when the Tampa Bay Lightning gave up a first-round pick and Nolan Foote to get him, after which he would leave to Calgary as an unrestricted free agent. Of course, he was part of back-to-back Stanley Cups in Tampa, so they’re surely shedding no tears in the end.

Lehkonen is a more controllable asset, as he’ll be a restricted free agent at the close of this season. If the Coleman deal is indeed the best comparable, one could argue that the Canadiens should stick to a similar, if not better return for Lehkonen as their demand.

Cap hit is a non-issue, as he’s on a $2.8-million deal that will be very easy to absorb now or at the deadline. For all the talk about names like Jeff Petry and Ben Chiarot, the Habs might be in a position to get a better return with Lehkonen than either of them. There will be offers, but will anyone come up with the desired price?

Thoughts

I don’t like the idea of trading Lehkonen, as I don’t believe that a sufficient return eclipsing that given for Coleman will materialize. I’d advocate to prioritize moving other contracts before one as reasonable as his is and should continue to be once an extension is agreed upon.

Trading Lehkonen likely kicks the time horizon for this team to be competitive a year or two down the road no matter the return. I believe his abilities would be key to accelerating the Canadiens’ rebuild, and potentially enabling this team to get back into the playoffs before Carey Price either retires or leaves for greener pastures.

There aren’t hundreds of Lehkonens kicking around the NHL, and he’s still improving in the prime of his career. Maybe you get lucky with a draft pick in return and select the next version of him, but even if you do, he’ll be years away from actually providing you with that presence.

That being said, I do believe that this team needs a rebuild. As a fan I’m of course hoping for that rebuild to happen as quickly as possible, but they won’t be doing it right if they’re not putting all their cards on the table, including Lehkonen.

As much as I don’t want to see him go, if a team does come along with a package including a first-rounder and a blue chip prospect, they’ll have to seriously consider it. Conversely, if the best anyone is willing to offer is closer to the Lars Eller return, they have to walk away from the table and focus on other things.

Kent Hughes mentioned in his introductory press conference that he’d be using analytics as a tool to evaluate his players. Knowing this, and with Lehkonen’s underlying numbers portraying a player with more value than just goals and assists, I can’t see Hughes taking just any offer in this case.

He should definitely keep an open door policy for the offers that are bound to come, but I hope he won’t pull the trigger unless someone walks in with a can’t-miss package.