Where does Mikko Lehtonen fit on the 2020/2021 version of the Maple Leafs?

If you ask any front-office member that was a part of a successful dynasty in the NHL, they tend to tie that organization’s success to their ability to continue to find impactful players on a year-by-year basis. Although the way teams find impactful players might be through different avenues outside of the NHL, it is all about teams finding their niche and continuing to build a reputation throughout the hockey world that attracts high-level players to commit to their program.

Dynasty’s like Los Angeles and Chicago can attribute their success to tremendous amateur scouting that lead to not only building a core around top picks like Kane, Doughty, Toews or Kopitar… but also finding later round gems in guys like Saad, Shaw, Clifford and Martinez. When people talk about these types of players, they also mention the man who is responsible for drafting these players. Gentleman like Al Murray (who is now continuing to hit on almost every draft pick in Tampa Bay), Michael Futa and Michel Dumas have become legends around the draft thanks to their profound success.

Thankfully, it looks like the Leafs have found their own method of finding these complementary pieces to help surround a young-core in Toronto. Director of Player Evaluation, Jim Paliafito has become a crown jewel for the Toronto Maple Leafs. His ability to land European players entering their prime with pro hockey experience is a tremendous competitive edge over the rest of the league. The acquisition of players like Zaitsev, Mikheyev and Barabanov are all thanks to Jim, and it looks like he found another gem in Mikko Lehtonen.

To put it into context, the Leafs could very well have a 2nd line winger, a 3rd line winger, and a 2nd pairing defenceman in their lineup for less than $3.5 million in total cap. That is how good Jim Paliafito is at his job. Now some may quibble with where the two Russian wingers may fit into our forward group but with likely 7 to 8 of the top 9 spots already accounted for, it is much more interesting to dive into where our new Finnish defenceman might fit in next year.

Now, I am naturally a very pessimistic person when it comes to predicting how a defenceman coming from either the leagues in Europe, whether it is the KHL, SHL, or Liiga. Aside from the fact that the strength of competition is much more drastic than some people give those leagues credit for, I mainly am skeptic because of the significant difference in the size of the ice and also how the European style of hockey is more of an “East-West”, possession focused strategy as opposed to the North American “North-South” style. But the more I watch tape of Mikko Lehtonen, and the more I hear European hockey reporter’s speak about him, the more optimistic I become about his potential to be a key piece of our defence.

The 4 main takeaways for me after watching the tape on Lehtonen are:

  1. Although his stride isn’t the prettiest, he can move up ice in transition extremely fast.
  2. He almost never makes a high-risk pass on his teams half of the ice, but has a knack for finding those cross-seam passes in the offensive zone (shows he still has a bit of creativity).
  3. He plays a tight gap in the neutral zone and is very good at positioning himself between the puck and the net in the defensive zone.
  4. Finally, his shots from the point almost always gets through traffic, and when he does have room, he can can absolutely blast it.

Some examples of these takeaways can be found below:

These first two clips come from the World Championships, as you can see Lehtonen’s “North-South” transition speed through the neutral zone should make him a threat right away amongst his NHL opponents as he was against teams like Sweden (in the second clip he forces Oliver Ekman Larsson to make a desperate dive at the puck to prevent a clear scoring chance).

Lehtonen vs Sweden (Rush up the middle).gifLehtonen vs Sweden (Rush up the right wall).gif

In this clip against Lokomotiv, Lehtonen shows tremendous gap control and steps up on the forward swiftly.

Lehtonen KHL Tight Gap StandUp.gif

These last two clips show Lehtonen’s ability to get shots through traffic and to the net, whether it would be a squick snap for a deflection or a blast from the point… this skill is tremendously missed on the Leafs current blueline.

Lehtonen Shot Tipped KHL.gifLehtonen KHL One Timer.gif

 The bottom line is the addition of Lehtonen gives the Leafs a tremendous amount of options on the backend, even if they aren’t able to trade for a more stable partner for Morgan Rielly. He is coming off 17G and 32A for 49 points in 60 KHL games which puts him 6th across the entire league and 1st amongst defenceman. But the best part is, he is more known to European hockey fans as a stable two-way defender who prides himself on playing a simple game. Finnish hockey reporter Sami Hoffren joined TSN 1050’s Leafs Lunch program on Tuesday and confirmed these reports along with mentioning Lehtonen’s comfortability in playing the right side.With all this being said, I think any permutation of a Leafs lineup solely depends on where the 2020/2021 salary cap ends up. We talked about the different cap scenarios on our recent podcast when discussing a possible Zach Hyman extension as well. The likely scenario seems to be a flat cap of $81.5 million at least for the 2020/2021 season and then see where things shape up on the hockey related revenue side once Seattle’s $650 million expansion fee kicks in.Nonetheless, assuming the worst case scenario of the cap staying at $81.5M and the Leafs don’t try and trade any players currently signed for next season. Say they bring back Mikheyev at $1.5M and Spezza at the league minimum around $700K… they will have to likely trade Dermott’s rights for some picks of some sort if they want to carry more than 20 skaters (which I strongly suggest they leave cap space for extra roster players given the likely scenario of a compact schedule with the delay of next season on the horizon).81.5 Cap, trade Dermott.png
Another possibility to would be to trade both Johnsson and Dermott for right shot defenceman that would fit financially into our system and give another top prospect like Timothy Liljegren more room to grow in the AHL as you can see below.81.5 Cap, trade Dermott and Johnsson.png
In either scenario, it is quite clear Lehtonen will be part of the top 6 next season and given the uncertainty of the cap situation, it wouldn’t shock me if he is getting top 4 minutes as early as next season.