A year ago, following Artturi Lehkonen’s 18-goal rookie season and an exceptional playoff performance, the outlook for the young responsible Finnish winger was positive. Many expected him to improve, if not become one of the Montreal Canadiens’ core contributors in 2017-18. But, like the team around him, he wasn’t able to achieve the expectations put upon him.
A combination of injuries and unlucky play led to the dreaded sophomore slump, landing at number seven on the team goal-scoring list after scoring just 12, and adding nine assists. However, there is still reason to believe this was simply a blip on the radar for the young Finn, as it was for most of the Canadiens.
Despite putting up the low numbers that he did, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that expectations are still high for this season, due to what he’s projected to become. An effective two-way winger with an incredible shot, underrated stickhandling skills, who can play effectively at either end of the rink? He is a NHL coach’s dream — especially when you factor in that Lehkonen is only 23 years old and has plenty of time to develop as high as his ceiling will allow.
Of course, the numbers this season were a casualty of many things. When entering their second year in the league, players usually face a tougher challenge. You won’t catch many teams off guard as they begin to scout you more efficiently and develop their defensive tactics in order to counteract your strengths.
It can be debated that Lehkonen was snakebitten last year, as he was one of the Canadiens most dangerous players at even strength, becoming a high-danger scoring chance generator as the season progressed.
Twelve of the 14 panellists had Lehkonen ranked either third or fourth, with the range extending as high as second and as low as seventh.
Top 25 Under 25 History
Lehkonen debuted in a fairly high position given where he was drafted in 2013, and has seen an upward trend in his placing in the years since. He holds position at #3 in 2018.
Lehkonen remains one of the Canadiens’ most versatile weapons despite not receiving recognition around the league for his excellent abilities, and has evolved from his first year in the NHL in a short time span.
He continues to have that goal-scoring element to his game, especially as he maintains a powerful wrist shot indicating a productive NHL goal-scorer. He definitely attempted to add elements to his offensive strategy last season, spending a lot of time around the goalmouth, even scoring one or two goals in that manner.
His stickhandling ability is also an underrated portion of his game, as he is tough to contain with the puck on his stick.
His ability to be both a goal-scorer as well as a 200-foot player allowed him to be one of the most consistent and trusted Canadiens forwards last season for Claude Julien. His hockey sense seems limitless and he is extremely responsible in his own end, making him one of the Canadiens’ most effective penalty-killers.
His ability to mesh with his linemates is impressive as well. He played in a variety of different lines and units, all the while playing his game the best way he knew how. His most frequent linemates were Tomas Plekanec and Brendan Gallagher, having played 14.4% of the season together (or 156:52 TOI). Looking at this mostly as a shutdown line, playing with Plekanec subjected Lehkonen to playing heavy defensive minutes, which in turn allowed Gallagher to to have a player who could keep up on his opposite wing.
Two years ago, when he was entering the NHL, the biggest concern was his size and skating ability, prone to being pushed around by bigger players, as well as how effective he was at moving up and down the ice. However, after two years, it’s safe to say those worries have been eased, despite mobility not being groundbreaking parts of his game.
After this season, I think the biggest thing for Lehkonen to improve on is perhaps his poise and patience when things don’t go his way. For a player going into his third year, arguably the most important thing is to not let a bad season get to you. Mentally, an unproductive year can get into a young player’s head, and the most successful young stars in the league don’t let a drought or lack of productivity affect the way they play their game in the long term.
His finishing ability is also something he has to find again this year. He was one of the best players in the entire league at generating scoring chances, so if his shooting percentage is any higher than where it was, he will, without a doubt, become a productive player once again.
This was the biggest difference between his rookie year and his second season. His struggles had to do with luck as much as skill and if there is any improvement there, Lehkonen will be one of the best players on the Canadiens in 2018-19.
Lehkonen’s point totals dropped this season, but he maintained great performances in other ways, allowing him to develop more effectively on both sides of the puck. He remains a lock for a spot in the top six as he is the second-best option on the right wing — even as a left-handed shot — ahead of Andrew Shaw and Nikita Scherbak. If his luck reverses, and he rediscovers the scoring touch he had during his rookie season, he will take another leap in his development.
He’s moving in the right direction and into the role projected for him when he was drafted: a responsible two-way winger who has the ability to create offence as well as be able to contribute defensively. Some would even say that his defensive game has developed beyond what the expectations were, earning a regular role on the penalty kill and trusted by Julien in close situations.
Lehkonen is on the cusp of being a full-time top-six NHL player. He has the potential to score 30 goals, as well as become one of the most effective two-way forwards in the game.
He’s continuing on a positive trend, one that will bode well for both Lehkonen and the Canadiens.