“Artturi Lehkonen isn’t doing enough. He must bring an offensive contribution.”
— Martin Lemay (translated), RDS, November 1, 2019
Let’s face it, Artturi Lehkonen has become a bit of a caricature, or as the kids say it these days, a meme. Montreal Canadiens fans laud his defensive responsibility, but make it seem like that he’s almost the second coming of Rene Bourque when it comes to scoring acumen. Even his most ardent supporters acknowledge this apparent limitation of the young Finnish winger’s game, describing Lehkonen goals as products of divine [non]-intervention.
Amid all the noise, the young winger is quietly working on surpassing last season’s career highs in assists and total points. With 18 points in 37 games so far on the campaign, he’s well on his way to accomplishing just that. After a goal and an assist on December 23 against the Winnipeg Jets, Marc Dumont of The Athletic noted that Lehkonen was now 14th among left-wingers league-wide in five-on-five scoring — tied with Alex Ovechkin.
Digging a little deeper, according to Natural Stat Trick, Lehkonen’s 2.36 points per 60 minutes of five-on-five ice time put him 21st in the league among left-wingers who have played 100 minutes or more. The Finn trails the likes of Brad Marchand (1st, 2.77) and Filip Forsberg (14th, 2.57), but is ahead of Max Pacioretty (26th, 2.19), Brady Tkachuk (29th, 2.11), and yes, Ovechkin (45th, 1.92).
Contrary to the eye test, which has helped fuel the narrative that Lehkonen needs five (or 50) chances to score one goal, the Piikkiö native’s shot and chance generation metrics this season largely align with his point totals. Using the same criteria as above, Lehkonen is 21st in points, 26th in shots, 22nd in shot attempts, 30th in scoring chances, and 29th in high-danger chances, indicating that he’s actually tallying a few more points than expected.
“We didn’t put him there because he’s a 30-goal scorer. He works hard in the corners and he comes up with the puck on the forecheck. He creates opportunities and that’s what we’re hoping to see.” — Claude Julien (translated), defending his decision to put Lehkonen on a second line with Max Domi and Nick Suzuki, November 23
For Lehkonen’s detractors, the confidence of the Canadiens’ coaching staff in the Finnish forward is a source of consternation. Julien’s affection for Lehkonen is no secret, given that he’s been a steadfast member of the lineup since the coach returned to Montreal. Even through the darkest depths of a 29-game goal drought in the middle of last season, Lehkonen continued to enjoy Julien’s confidence as a defensive specialist and a penalty-killer, even garnering a few minutes on the man advantage as the Habs tried to spark a flatlined power play.
Somewhat understandably for a Habs faithful that watched an offence-starved team slowly slip out of a playoff position, “he does all the right things that don’t show up on the scoreboard” was little consolation for a lack of actual goals on actual scoreboards. But Lehkonen has rightfully earned the staff’s trust over the course of his career by demonstrating two key elements that are catnip to every coach: consistency and adaptability.
During his first two seasons, Lehkonen was used by the Canadiens in dramatically different ways. As a rookie and coming off a playoffs where he broke Daniel Alfredsson’s Frölunda record for most points in a single campaign, Lehkonen was the sniper, deployed mostly alongside the likes of Tomas Plekanec and Andrew Shaw. As a sophomore, Lehkonen had to simultaneously adopt both Plekanec’s defensive-specialist and Shaw’s down-low-grinder roles as he hit the ice next to Alex Galchenyuk and Jonathan Drouin. Despite this, the Finn’s underlying capacity to generate offence remained remarkably stable. Lehkonen’s personal point production did take a heavy hit thanks to a shooting percentage that declined by half, but this was probably because a player who was used to finding open space and picking his spots now had to take a crash course at the Brendan Gallagher school of scoring.
Galchenyuk’s departure after the 2017-18 season necessitated a third change in as many seasons. Now playing alongside players like Max Domi and Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Lehkonen finally received some degree of support for his primary roles; Domi could aid him in the corners, while Kotkaniemi quickly showed that he was no defensive liability. In response, the Finn toned down his personal shot production, but added a new playmaking dimension to his game. Lehkonen saw his assist total outpace his goal tally for the first time since his Liiga days, culminating in a new career best point-production mark by a considerable margin.
“That we get more out of human beings. That we really help the human being to find the resources that he has.” — Erkka Westerlund, talking to The Athletic’s Murat Ates about the philosophy of Finnish hockey
The puukko is a rather unassuming belt knife, usually with a blade three to five inches in length. It’s an everyday tool used for anything from hunting and fishing to cooking to even mundane tasks like opening boxes. The knife has become so ubiquitious in Finnish culture that the military rarely issues a standard knife as part of a soldier’s kit because every recruit already comes with their own personal puukko.
The puukko neatly encapsulates a Finnish ethos, born of historical necessity, of maximum value from minimal resources. This ethos permeates Finnish society right down to the sporting fabric. Last year, Finland sent a team featuring only two active NHLers — Juho Lammikko and Henri Jokiharju — to the World Championship. Powered by captain Marko Anttila, the 13th-highest point-getter for Jokerit Helsinki that season, they came home with the title, fending off a Canadian team featuring Mark Stone, Sean Couturier, and Jonathan Marchessault in the Gold Medal Game.
The fact that Lehkonen is cut from this same cloth is not lost upon the Canadiens. In Lehkonen, Julien knows he has an all-purpose player that can be shifted up and down the lineup at a moment’s notice. A player that will respond to changing circumstances and adopt new skill sets accordingly. Marc Bergevin knows that he has a player who will never earn the bloated contracts of his flashier peers. A player who won’t cost five-plus million dollars after a 35-point season punctuated by a few big hits.
The Canadiens have not, and will not always deploy Lehkonen in a way that endears him to a fanbase that is prone to lurching from one big event to the next. It won’t matter, because all the organization — coaches, management, and players alike — will see is a vital part of their team doing the job that he was assigned.