The Toronto Maple Leafs have landed the biggest catch among the defensemen in this year’s Euro pool, signing 26-year-old Mikko Lehtonen to a one-year entry-level contract.
A major point producer in the KHL last season (49 points in 60 GP, eight points better than the next best defenseman), Lehtonen had plenty of interest from all over the NHL, including a hot pursuit from conference rivals Montreal, New Jersey, and New York Rangers as well as interest from the Kings, Predators, and Jets, among others. NHL interest started in earnest after the 2019 World Championships and continued all season long before Lehtonen mutually agreed to terminate his contract with Jokerit last Friday.
The Leafs were not a team mentioned among the front runners for his services, but their recruitment efforts, led by Director of Player Evaluation Jim Paliafito, have landed them yet another free wallet with plenty of intriguing upside just a few weeks after signing forward Alexander Barabanov out of St. Petersburg. Cap strapped and without a first-round pick two years in a row, these kinds of talent pursuits are all the more valuable for a team in Toronto’s position.
That the Leafs have a more crowded left side of their defense compared to a number of those aforementioned teams speaks to their continued ability to sell their program and attract highly sought-after Euro talent. Paliafito’s connections, intel on the future intentions of players vis a vis the NHL, and ability to establish player and agent relationships earlier than many of the other clubs in the mix no doubt played its part again here.
Lehtonen, a left-shot defenseman, has represented Team Finland regularly at the international level, including the U18s and U20s (gold medal winner), the Olympics, as well as the World Championships, where he was a tournament All-Star and gold medal winner in 2019 after recording a goal, seven points, and 32 shots on net in 10 games.
Lehtonen made the move to the KHL in the 2019 offseason after four pro seasons split between the Liiga and SHL (including one Swedish championship with HV71 and a Finals appearance in the Finnish league). His 2019-20 season with Jokerit included the following accomplishments:
- KHL Defenseman of the Month in November
- KHL Defenseman of the Month in December
- KHL Defenseman of the Month in January
- Most Assists by a Defenseman (32 in 60 games)
- Most Goals by a Defenseman (17 in 60 games)
- Most Points by a Defenseman (49 in 60 games)
- Most Game-Winning Goals by a Defenseman (tied with five)
- Fifth in +/- among Defensemen (+26)
- Fourth in Shots/Game among Defensemen (3.1)
- KHL All-Star
The World Championships appearance in 2019 followed by a KHL season of that quality had NHL clubs lining up outside the door. Lehtonen was a workhorse for Jokerit last season, playing 22 and a half minutes a game, which ranked fifth in the league among KHL blue liners to make 30 or more appearances. That time-on-ice figure increased to over 23 minutes in the playoffs (before they were cut short), where he added three points in six games along with 19 shots on goal.
The 6’0, 195-pound Finn has played both sides of the rink internationally, possessing the skating agility and puck skills required to play his offside. Whether that transfers overseas to the North American ice surface in his rookie NHL season remains to be seen, but with Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, Rasmus Sandin, and Travis Dermott all shooting left, it may be an option Sheldon Keefe and the Leafs coaching staff choose to explore.
2020-21 Toronto Maple Leafs Defense Depth Chart
|Morgan Rielly ($5M, 2022 UFA)||Justin Holl (2M, 2023 UFA)|
|Jake Muzzin ($5.625M, 2024 UFA)||Timothy Liljegren (863k, 2022 RFA)|
|Travis Dermott (2020 RFA)|
|Rasmus Sandin (894k, 2021 RFA)|
|Mikko Lehtonen (925k, 2021 UFA)|
|Calle Rosen (750k, 2021 UFA)|
|Martin Marincin (700k, 2021 UFA)|
Lehtonen is also a candidate to step into some second-unit power-play time with his knack for getting shots through traffic, in addition to slick quarterbacking / puck-moving skills. Of his 17 goals last season, 11 came by way of the power play.
Jokerit dir. of player personnel on Mikko Lehtonen: "I think his style fits well for Toronto. Torey Krug is a good comparison. He runs the power play well and gets pucks to the net with a good wrist shot. He was the best player in Europe, IMO. He's ready to play in the NHL."
— Michael Traikos (@Michael_Traikos) May 4, 2020
It’s a statistic to be taken with a grain of salt given 23 minutes of ice time a night with top-unit power-play time is not in the cards for Lehtonen in his rookie season — not to mention the obvious step up in competition — but using a .74 translation factor between the KHL and NHL, it puts Lehtonen at 36 points over those 60 games (over 50 in 82).
Lehtonen will be an unrestricted free agent when his entry-level deal expires in June of 2021.
Mikko Lehtonen Scouting Report
“A very skilled offensive defenseman with very good skating ability. Plays a pretty good two-way game. Best defenseman in the KHL in 2019-2020 and ready to play in the NHL in 2020-2021.”
“Lehtonen has managed to get out of his KHL contract with Jokerit a year early, making him the best European free agent available right now. Lehtonen is a bit of a late bloomer but the 26-year-old was the best defenseman in Europe during the 2019-2020 season. His 17 goals and 49 points in 60 games led all defensemen in the KHL by a wide margin. It was definitely a breakout season for him but he’s been developing steadily over the years, and there was a lot of NHL interest already after the 2019 World Championship tournament where he won gold and was named to the tournament All-Star team.
Lehtonen is also not just a pure offensive player who would be a liability defensively. He’s not a defensive stud but he plays an NHL level two-way game already. He is also a very good skater which obviously helps matters. He is expected to be NHL ready right away with no time needed in the AHL. Most likely he’ll start on the bottom pair and play on the second power play unit but he could work his way up to the second pair depending on the team he signs with.”
– Jokke Nevalainen, Dobber Hockey
Mikko Lehtonen Video
Mikko Lehtonen (#44) has a strong shift on the power play that results in a goal. pic.twitter.com/8lDE1TGXMQ
— Michael (@TheLeafsIMO) May 4, 2020
For my #NJDevils followers, Mikko Lehtonen is a mobile blueliner with excellent offensive skills. Led the KHL in points (49) and goals (17) by a defenseman at the age of 26 and has a great point shot to show for it.
— Brandon Holmes (@BHolmes_Hockey) May 1, 2020
— Alex Nunn (@aj_ranger) May 4, 2020