As the Montreal Canadiens pass the quarter point of the 2021-22 season, things certainly haven’t gone as planned. That said, while the campaign may be a write-off from the perspective of wins and losses, there are still things to play for. In particular, the new administration will be looking for bright spots when making decisions on what to do with its charges for subsequent years.
After racing into the NHL with 18 goals in his rookie season, Artturi Lehkonen has settled — some would say stagnated — into a more pedestrian role as a sort of defensive specialist/jack-of-all-trades player. He quietly offers a solid game without significant ups and downs, which has been enough to garner a regular NHL spot but no long-term contract. This year, however, as the rest of the team seemingly crumbles around him, Lehkonen’s steadiness has translated into something much more for a Canadiens team generating much less.
Lehkonen’s renaissance has not seen him metamorphosize into a 30-goal sniper, but it has come with a bump in offensive production. With 10 5-on-5 points so far through the first 25 games of the season, the Piikkiö native has already matched his total from the entirety of his last campaign. Moreover, his current 2.07 points-per-60-minutes would be a career-high if the season ended presently.
The winger’s offensive resurgence is backed by extremely strong underlying metrics. Among players with 100 or more minutes of ice time, Lehkonen is currently:
- First in on-ice shot share (56.91%)
- Second in on-ice shot attempt share (55.54%, behind Chris Wideman)
- Second in on-ice expected goal share (57.88%, behind only Wideman again)
Lehkonen’s strong play has not translated as well as hoped to goals. Something that is, unfortunately, par for the course for the Finn. However, his 47.62% goal share is still good for 6th on the team (among players with 100+ minutes of ice time). The stat also needs some clarification.
There are only seven players on the Canadiens (with 100+ minutes of ice time) that have an on-ice goals differential of -1 or better at 5-on-5. Joel Armia and Sami Niku head the pack with a +2 differential, Jonathan Drouin and Ryan Poehling are at evens, and Lehkonen, Wideman, and Brendan Gallagher are all at -1. After this, the gap immediately widens to -3 (Jeff Petry, Nick Suzuki, and Jake Evans). Of the seven at -1 or better only Lehkonen, Wideman, and Niku have positive underlying metrics above 50% for either shot attempts or expected goals. By this point, Lehkonen’s finishing ability (or lack thereof) is just part of the package that he brings, but his underlying metrics do indicate much less volatility and more sustainability in his level of play.
The most interesting thing about Lehkonen this season is that he has made everyone around him better — and that is only a minimal exaggeration. When it comes to shot attempt share, only Niku and Tyler Toffoli are better without Lehkonen than with. When it comes to expected goal share, it's only Suzuki, Mathieu Perreault, Toffoli, Adam Brooks, and Drouin — with the latter three heavily impacted by small sample size having only shared the ice with Lehkonen for under 10 minutes. Even when it comes to goal share, Lehkonen exerts a positive effect on five of the ten players for whom data is available or meaningful, with no change or marginal declines for three others.
Strikingly (and perhaps unsurprisingly), Lehkonen’s on-ice presence has been a tremendous boon for the Canadiens’ defence corps. David Savard, Petry, and Brett Kulak do better with Lehkonen on the ice than with him on the bench in all three examined categories. Ben Chiarot’s possession numbers rise considerably, although his actual goal share drops slightly. Alexander Romanov is deceptively similar. Although his goal share percentage drops by ~12% when together with Lehkonen, that ~12% actually reflects a mean difference of one goal. Romanov is -3 with Lehkonen (2 for, 5 against) and -4 (9 for, 13 against) without him.
Although 2016 seems like an eon ago, it’s important to remember that Artturi Lehkonen is only 26. He is currently on a one-year contract with a $2.4 million cap hit that is slated to expire this offseason. However, the Canadiens will still hold his rights at its conclusion provided that they retain his services through the trade deadline. Lehkonen certainly has trade value, comparisons to Lars Eller and the two second-rounders that he fetched come to mind, but the Finn may be more valuable to the Canadiens as a grounding point, a stabilizing anchor, for a team that will likely undergo considerable transformation over the next year or two.