Against the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday, Artturi Lehkonen had his highest time-on-ice total in a month, flanking top Habs scorer Max Domi and fierce worker Andrew Shaw. The trio had some good offensive looks. Domi finished the night with a goal and an assist and Shaw with two assists.
Unfortunately for Lehkonen, despite showing some chemistry with his linemates, he walked down the tunnel without having written his name on the scoresheet — yet another game where his energetic play and high effort wasn’t rewarded with a goal.
The Finnish forward’s 18 markers in his first season is now quite a distant memory. The prospective goal-scorer that he once was is more and more viewed as a defensive forward only. Not that there is anything wrong with the role — Lehkonen is an incredibly useful player even when he is not scoring— but it could become hard for him to get consistent time in the top six or even the top nine if he isn’t producing. Especially with the crop of talented forwards that will join the ranks of the Habs over the next few seasons.
It may not be next year or the one after, but there could come a time when Lehkonen’s play doesn’t hold as much value compared to other forwards with similar defensive capabilities that are also able to contribute offensively with more regularity.
The main issue with Lehkonen’s goal-scoring is that it has been quite one-dimensional. There were the great releases from the slot, when the opponents gave him space to walk between the hashmarks, put weight on his stick, and send the puck flying cleanly past the goalie, but those displays have been rare, mostly because such defensive breakdowns don’t happen very regularly.
Most of the goals he has scored in his career were around the slot, finding loose pucks or banging in rebounds. Brendan Gallagher has made a career out of such goals. But what led to Gallagher’s totals exploding in the last few years is arguably a more diverse offensive game. He started driving the play along the boards, spinning off defenders to attack the slot, using more give-and-gos to get shots from the slot before the goalie had time to react, and also scoring more from afar with quick wristers.
Gallagher has evolved into a very complete player from the slot-scorer he was just a few seasons ago. It took him time to add new facets to his game, but he did that while still retaining his hard-nosed style.
The same thing could happen with Lehkonen. The Finnish forward has been heavily focused on his play away from the puck in the past couple of seasons; an expected focus since it is what got him to the NHL and keeps him in the lineup.
But now the 23-year-old needs to push the boundaries of what he does and who he is on the ice to remain an impact player in the Habs lineup. Doing that should come from working on his biggest underused weapon: his shot.
Great shooters aren’t who they are because they possess great releases, though it is part of the toolkit, and Lehkonen definitely has a hard shot. They are effective in using that release because of a superior sense of timing and ability to find or create space.
Lehkonen can be accused of a spray-and-pray tactic at times, and it has been especially evident recently as his drought drags on. It is one of the common strategies to break a slump: directing pucks at the net and hoping for the best. But while it can provide the odd goal to boost confidence, it is not a strategy that brings long-term success.
Take a look at this sequence from the Flyers game:
Lehkonen makes a great play off the offensive cycle to keep the puck in and bounce it to Andrew Shaw below the goal line. He stays in a support position and has space around him to work with when he receives a return pass. But the winger doesn’t shoulder-check before getting the puck back and doesn’t see that he can probably take a couple of steps with the puck and send it back to Shaw, or to the blue line.
He fires directly at the line of defenders and the puck bounces to the Flyers. The Habs never end up getting full control back in the following sequence, effectively eliminating any occasion for a better scoring chance from another play.
The shot Lehkonen fired had a low-percentage chance of getting to the front of the net, and even less to travel all the way into the cage. Continuing the cycle, moving the opposing defence, and getting in a better shooting position would have been a more effective choice.
Even his most memorable shot of the game — the puck he hit off the crossbar off the rush — was another relatively low-percentage shot. Carter Hart had a clear line of sight and only needed to move half a step to be square to his one-timer above the top of the circle and from the wide lane on the zone entry.
The fact that he almost scored on the play is a testament to the power behind a release that would be deadly with pre-shot movement from the slot.
Sometimes less is more when it comes to shooting. Holding on to the puck, making a play to reach a teammate and repositioning to an area with a higher convertion rate, like in between the faceoff dots and below the top of the circle, can be best.
Once in this position, it’s about being ready for the shot, with feet pointed toward the net and limiting the time the puck is on the blade of your stick, blending the receiving motion into the release as much as possible to fire quickly.
In the clip below, Lehkonen has found space in the coverage, but isn’t in a position to fire when he does get the puck. Once again, he isn’t aware of the pressure he will face when he attempts to shoot, and can’t reposition to adapt to it.
Another important consideration for Lehkonen is that he has to be careful not to skate himself into coverage.
On this zone entry at the start of the game, Domi makes a great pass to his winger, but Lehkonen can’t capitalize on it because he skated too far forward too quickly, and his course brought him in reach of a stick-lift by a defender.
There is no guarantee that Domi would have connected with Lehkonen had the Finnish forward slowed down earlier and moved to his left in a seam further away from the defender, but knowing the talent of Domi as a passer, it is very possible that Lehkonen would have gotten a free shot from the slot with better control of his speed and direction to gain more space for a shot.
As stated, timing plays a very important role in getting good shooting opportunities, and reading the play optimally is as important as the execution of the shot.
Artturi Lehkonen will always be the same hard-working player, and being a little bit more lucky, he should realistically find goals by banging pucks in right at the doorstep every so often — like he did in his first year in the NHL. But working on a few elements like being more selective with his shots to avoid giving possession away, shoulder-checking more to locate seams and pressure, and adopting more of a shot-ready position will help him make better use of his release, become a more diverse offensive threat, and increase his goal totals. Not unlike the now-leading-scorer of the Habs, Brendan Gallagher.