Memo to those pockets of Leafs Nation wringing their hands because the Maple Leafs have signed a defenceman who just happens to shoot left. Read MoreNo matter where Lehtonen eventually lines up with Leafs, he should be impactful — Toronto Sun
Memo to those pockets of Leafs Nation wringing their hands because the Maple Leafs have signed a defenceman who just happens to shoot left.
It comes from Mikko Lehtonen himself.
“Doesn’t matter, right or left side, I am OK with both,” Lehtonen said during a conference call with reporters on Monday. “Actually, sometimes I like more (the) right side.”
Fact is, the Leafs have brought aboard a player who should make an impact no matter where he eventually lines up on the blue line. Thanks to determination from Jim Paliafito, the Leafs’ senior director of player evaluation who has helped the club sign several players out of Europe, including most recently Alexander Barabanov and Ilya Mikheyev, Toronto was able to beat the NHL competition to sign Lehtonen to a one-year, $925,000 US entry-level contract for the 2020-21 season.
Lehtonen led Jokerit of the KHL in scoring this past season (as well as the league’s defencemen), putting up 49 points (17 goals and 32 assists) in 60 games. Regarded as one of the top defencemen in Europe, Lehtonen has the ability to run the power play, but more immediately, fits into the mould the Leafs have in mind for their blueliners. He’s a heads-up skater who reads the play well.
“I’m a two-way defenceman who can skate and move the puck,” Lehtonen said. “My game should fit pretty well with Toronto because they want to skate well and those are my strengths.”
Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas, who went to scout Lehtonen at the Karjala Cup in Helsinki last year following Paliafito’s positive reports, joined Lehtonen on the call.
“I agree with Mikko 100% why it’s a fit for us and for him,” Dubas said. “It’s the way he plays and the way we want to play.
“With regard to whether he will play the left or right side, it’s such a hard thing to answer right now. It would be easier if our season was over and we knew where we were at. We want to hopefully get back and finish our season and evaluate things from there and determine whether we want to try him on both sides, but I think the versatility certainly helps.”
Lehtonen and Jokerit mutually agreed late last week to terminate his contract so he could get a crack at the NHL. A native of Turku, Finland, Lehtonen never was drafted by an NHL club.
Lehtonen played in the 2020 KHL all-star game and was named the league’s defenceman of the month in November, December and January.
At the international level, Lehtonen has represented Finland several times, including at the 2018 Winter Olympics, the world championship in 2017 and 2019 and the 2014 world junior championship. He won gold at the ’19 worlds, making the tournament all-star team.
It’s going to be intriguing to see where the six-foot, 196-pound Lehtonen finds his stride with the Leafs. Once what remains of the 2019-20 season is done — whether it’s the regular season and playoffs, just the playoffs, or cancellation in the midst of the COVID-19 global pandemic — Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci will be unrestricted free agents. Travis Dermott is going to be a restricted free agent.
For 2020-21, the lone right-handed shot under contract in the defence corps is Justin Holl, though Timothy Liljegren could be in the mix as well.
What does Dubas think of his defence group as a whole now?
“It’s always a big topic of conversation,” Dubas said. “We know we’re going to have Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, Holl, we’re going to be able to bring back Dermott, who will be a restricted free agent, and you have our younger guys in Rasmus Sandin and Liljegren and Teemu Kivihalme and Calle Rosen and so on, and then you have the decisions on Ceci and Barrie.
“We like our options, but it’s certainly an area we need to see progress in, whether it’s the development of Dermott, development of Sandin and Liljegren, or the acquisition of players like Mikko. We like the group and we’re looking forward to seeing it play healthy.”