A year ago one of the big questions in the off-season was whether Artturi Lehkonen could make the Montreal Canadiens’ roster or not. While there were a few skeptics, former captain and Habs legend Saku Koivu didn’t hold back his confidence in the young Finn when he spoke to Eyes On The Prize.
"I am very confident that Artturi Lehkonen will take a spot in Montreal's lineup."
A year later a lot has changed. Lehkonen was most definitely one of the success stories for the Canadiens this past season. He played 72 games and contributed 28 points (18 goals, 10 assists) for a points-per-game average of 0.38, placing him eighth on the team among forwards, in his rookie year.
Scoring 18 goals in his debut season was impressive, especially considering that his regular centreman was Tomas Plekanec, who struggled offensively as he took the defensive load for the team. Lehkonen also saw next to no power-play time to increase his production.
His goal total ranked third on the team behind Max Pacioretty (35) and common linemate Paul Byron (22), and tied with that posted by Alexander Radulov. It was a great debut that got overshadowed by some incredible rookie performances around the league, but one that shows just how much potential the Finn possesses.
It shouldn’t have been a surprise that he made the team out of camp, given he came from Frölunda, arguably one of the best teams outside the NHL. The team had seen another of its former players, Mattias Janmark, make the Dallas Stars the year before.
Still, it was a big surprise how well Lehkonen adapted. While media had kept track of his offensive output in the Swedish Hockey League, few knew of his defensive acumen. It was no fluke that he excelled in a more difficult role on Plekanec’s wing, forming what would be considered a shutdown line on the team.
Lehkonen only started in the offensive zone 44.8% of the time, but still had a 52.9 Corsi-for percentage, showing how much the line was able to drive play. While it worked last season the question now is: what is the optimal line for him coming into his second season to the NHL?
It turns out there were only two options for consideration on the ballot for Lehkonen: the third- or fourth-best player under 25 in the organization. Eighteen panellists (including the community vote) had him in the higher spot, while six placed him at #4.
Might it have been the playoff performance that lifted him over Danault in the end?
Top 25 Under 25 History
Lehkonen made his debut in the T25U25 in 2013, placing 13th after being drafted late in the second round. He moved up to ninth after a successful Liiga season in 2014 before falling to 12th after struggling in his first season with Frölunda in the SHL.
Last year he ranked fifth after his astounding playoff performance, and this year he moves another two spots up the list for a podium place at number three.
Goals are his main commodity, and that is what Lehkonen has brought to most of the teams he has played for in his lifetime. Most of them have come at even strength, which is impressive to say the least.
His biggest weapon is a wicked shot that he can launch from any angle. He works best as the triggerman when in the offensive zone, as showcased this past season by his 11.3 shooting percentage.
He also has elite hockey sense, which is something that coaches like to rave about as a skill that can’t be taught. He uses it all over the ice and reads the game very well, and while he isn’t the type to make an aggressive play to force a turnover around his own blue line, his awareness and quick thinking get him in the right position for an interception or to start a counter-attack in a hurry.
It’s fair to point out that Lehkonen absolutely thrives in post-season play. Even in his rookie season he stepped up his game when the playoffs came around.
Lehkonen stole the puck, created a scoring chance, got his own rebound and out muscled his coverage to score.— Marc Dumont (@MarcPDumont) April 20, 2017
Playoffs performer. pic.twitter.com/A4jVqJtr3k
After having been second in scoring for Frölunda during the 2015 playoffs (behind Janmark), and winning the scoring title in the 2016 SHL playoffs, Lehkonen was once again among the top two players in scoring for the Canadiens in the spring. It is easy to forget that he scored as many goals as Radulov (two) and finished the playoffs with four points (second in the team) in his first NHL playoff appearance.
With a body of work that spans several teams and various leagues, there’s plenty of evidence that when the games heat up, Lehkonen will play a huge part.
That winning mentality has also earned him some major hardware. He has won the Rookie of the Year award in Finland and has been on the winning squad at the World Juniors, the Champions Hockey League, and has hoisted the Le Mat Trophy as an SHL champion.
A year ago everyone would have said his size was the biggest obstacle to an effective NHL career, but he didn’t apear to be hindered much in his rookie season. After a full summer of training in Finland, Lehkonen has shown that size shouldn’t be counted as a weakness anymore.
The skating that was deemed to be a bit of a weakness when he joined Frölunda has also been worked on tirelessly, with improvement being most evident in his balance on his skates. His low center of gravity helps him in battles along the boards, and he uses his legs much more efficiently to propel himself forward than what he used to do. Still, it is one aspect of the game he will need to work on in order to become even better.
One thing that would be listed as a strength by his coaches is that Lehkonen is loyal and will do whatever is requested, able to play a responsible game. He will do this even when the team could use his offence more than his strong defensive play. It’s a coach’s dream to have such a player, but it also limits his offensive output when the team doesn’t get to take advantage of his deadly shot at the other end of the ice.
Whereas last year Lehkonen was projected to have a ceiling of a top-six player on an NHL team, he may be on the cusp of reaching that projection already. He has many of the tools that most coaches like to see in a top forward.
He is primed to take another step in his young career. He has the sense, the shot, and the skill already, and he has improved his skating and size in recent off-seasons, so it is reasonable to believe he can put in an even better performance in 2017-18.
A second-line position with a more offensive role would be beneficial for that development, as well as more power play time, but it will be tough to earn that spot with the talent the team has, especially among left-handed shooters. Wherever he ends up playing, he will likely find a way to be effective.
Artturi Lehkonen’s second year of experience in a particular environment has always been better than his first, and there is no reason to expect anything less now that he’s in the NHL.