Even though Otto Leskinen was coming off a promising season in Liiga, he was still an unknown commodity when he signed a two-year entry-level deal with the Montreal Canadiens in May of 2019. The undrafted free agent had shown potential as an invitee to the club’s development camp during the previous summer. After continuing to flourish into one of Liiga’s best young defencemen, Montreal saw a diamond in the rough who was worth exploring further.
Leskinen quickly slotted into a top-four role with the Laval Rocket and remained there for just about the whole season. He also received a short stint with the big boys, making his NHL debut in a limited role against Colorado in December.
After missing a stint of games in February while being out with a concussion, he finished his first season in North America with 22 points and 57 penalty minutes, all of them with the Rocket.
People’s opinion on Leskinen seems to be quite divided, with a range from 17 to 36 among the 14 votes. Eyes On The Prize’s staff seemed fairly consistent on having him in the top 25, with a few exceptions. The EOTP community was nearly spot on, ranking him at number 24.
I can only speak for myself here, but I think the value of Leskinen is dependent on what you think is left in his developmental tank at this point. At 23 years of age, he will need to use his lever to demonstrate that there is yet another gear in his arsenal if he wants to come into true NHL contention. In the pot lies also the possibility of a contract extension, since his current deal will be up after this year.
Leskinen has started the new Liiga season in an impressive fashion. Since joining his old club, Kalevan Pallo, on loan, he has been one of their leading point-producers and a top defenceman. When a prospect returns to play in their native league, you want him to dominate his former peers and show that he has levelled up during his stint in the AHL. So far, Leskinen is playing a confident game in his home environment, which hopefully can translate once he comes back over again.
Top 25 Under 25 History
When last year’s list was published, the newly signed Finn came in strong at number 22 even though he was an unfamiliar asset at the time. The fact that he has moved down a peg on this year’s list shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a knock on his performance last year. It could quite possibly just be a result of the Canadiens’ prospect cupboard getting more and more stuffed with high-performing youngsters.
History of #23
Leskinen is an offensive-minded defenceman. When he left Finland, he did it as a power-play contributor who combined his puck-moving skills with great vision and a good shot. In Laval, he relied more on the former two skills than the latter, which can be seen by his total tally of two goals and 20 helpers during the 2019-20 season.
Great vision by Otto Leskinen to find Alexandre Alain at the back post for Alain's 7th of the year. pic.twitter.com/LK6WCCGqCY— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) December 21, 2019
Overall, Leskinen plays a smart offensive game combined with solid positional defence. He is also a good skater, something which helps him make up for a few of his defensive woes.
Even though Leskinen’s defensive game is less of a question mark today than when he joined the franchise, there is still plenty of room for improvement. His offensive vision doesn’t translate to him reading opposing attackers very well, which consequently can cause him to be caught off guard when diagnosing plays and getting back off the rush.
Moving forward, Leskinen will also have to cut down on unnecessary minor penalties. Last year he was second on the Rocket with his 57 PIM, trailing only Michael Pezzetta. The numbers are slightly skewed, since most of them came in the beginning of the season, and 17 of them were called in a single fight against Toronto.
Leskinen had never been considered a brute earlier in his career. In fact, a quick count gives him 74 PIM in 186 regular-season Liiga games. There is a transition period when getting accustomed to the tempo in the AHL, which could factor in here, especially considering that he did get better at keeping himself on the referee’s good side as the year went on. Still, it is something to keep an eye on when he dresses for Laval again.
He possesses a good shot, yet it felt as though he was hesitant to fire it at times last year, preferring to search for open teammates around him in the offensive zone. Hopefully he will take more shots himself when the opportunity presents itself, since it would benefit both himself and the Rocket.
It is a make-or-break season for Leskinen with the Canadiens. Not because he’s not talented or unworthy of a roster spot, but because the Habs have plenty of talented defencemen in the pipeline ready to push for, at the very least, an entry-level contract and an AHL roster spot. With him currently playing the second and last year of his two-year contract, he will need to show why he’s worth keeping, preferably by demonstrating that he is talented beyond what the AHL can offer him.
This year will probably see him in a fierce battle with other experienced Laval defenders on being first in line for injury call-ups. Being a left shot, his main competitors will be Laval’s captain Xavier Ouellet and Gustav Olofsson. Barring a major surprise, he also has rookie Alexander Romanov and NHL regulars Victor Mete and Brett Kulak ahead of him in line for the spot on Montreal’s third pairing.
Having had last year to learn and adapt, Leskinen will now be looked upon as one of Laval’s leading blue-liners. He will be expected to act as one of the power-play quarterbacks and to be trustworthy enough on defence. To top it off, he will be an experienced presence for fellow Finn Jesse Ylönen when the forward eventually gets under way with his rookie season. One thing is for certain: if Leskinen can continue to play the way he has started this season in Finland, he will be an interesting follow once the AHL starts up.
I think there is more potential than just being an AHL defenceman for Leskinen. I hope that he continues to improve and that he uses the upcoming six months to demonstrate that he deserves a longer look than the Habs have already given him. Young defencemen with good skating and an offensive touch are always welcome assets in any organization.
You can listen to Patrik Bexell and Anton Rasegård as they discuss the three players from number 25 to 23 below.