The Toronto Maple Leafs have acquired goaltender Veini Vehvilainen from the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for defenseman Mikko Lehtonen, the club announced on Friday.
This move is, in large part, about doing right by the 27-year-old Lehtonen by moving him to a situation where he can receive consistent playing time and earn a consistent NHL paycheque. For the first half of the 56-game campaign, the KHL import had largely been toiling on the taxi squad earning a $70,000 minor-league salary while waiting an indeterminate amount of time for an injury to open up an NHL lineup spot.
The reasonably steady and consistent play of the Travis Dermott – Zach Bogosian bottom pairing has been tough to move away from for any real length of time, while Lehtonen’s performances were a mixed bag, albeit it’s not been a fair evaluation in the sense that he hasn’t been able to string together games with consistent playing time in order to really settle into the league.
In the few opportunities he received to play a couple of games in a row, a good performance — including a two-assist game against Vancouver — wasn’t really followed up on with a second good performance, which didn’t lend itself to winning trust from the coaching staff in an internally-competitive environment. That said, four of his nine games included under 10 minutes of ice time, and he eclipsed the 15-minute mark just twice.
Asked Sheldon Keefe yesterday what it would take for Mikko Lehtonen to get back in the Maple Leafs lineup. Here's his answer… pic.twitter.com/2MEQQVw40i
— luke fox (@lukefoxjukebox) March 12, 2021
These things can happen when a team has real depth on its blue line — especially when the schedule is a short sprint with no exhibition season — and the club still has Rasmus Sandin as a more-than-capable #7 once Sandin is healthy. It is unfortunate in the sense that Lehtonen gave the Leafs desirable depth on the left side — and a capable power-play QB option — in the case of injuries or under-performance on the blue line in the second half of the season / playoffs, but there is more to consider here outside of team’s short-term interests on the ice.
The Leafs have had a successful recruiting program for European and KHL free-agent talent in large part because they’ve provided opportunities, kept promises, and treated their players with respect. Kyle Dubas has clearly shown this to be his management style: he’ll move a player who is not getting a fair shake — and isn’t likely to receive one anytime soon — to an organization where they will receive a real opportunity.
Dubas’ trade with Vancouver that shipped out Josh Leivo is an example of similarly doing right by a player. Although Leivo’s NHL experience and production was more significant than Lehtonen’s, it is similar in the sense that they are players who definitely carried more value as a depth option for the organization than what they could fetch in a trade return, but the human side of the game — and the club’s reputation with Euro free agents in this case — is a real and important consideration, one that is a factor with fellow KHL import Alexander Barabanov potentially as well.
The return of a depth goalie is notable in the sense that the Toronto Marlies have been patchworking their goalie situation as the Leafs have battled injury at the backup goalie position (in addition to the loss of Aaron Dell to waivers early this season). This season’s roster rules dictate that one goalie needs to be on the taxi squad. When Jack Campbell is ready to return, Michael Hutchinson can take over the taxi-squad spot, and the Marlies can proceed with Joseph Woll, Veini Vehvilainen, and Andrew D’Agostini in the crease.
Critically, Vehvilainen is playing on an entry-level deal and is waiver exempt, which allows the Leafs to freely move him between the NHL/AHL/taxi squad as needed. An RFA at season’s end, he is also exempt from the expansion draft but could be made available if the club needed a goalie to expose.
The 6’0, 180-pound Vehvilainen has faced exactly four NHL shots in a relief appearance this season — stopping three of them — as he has been a depth goalie on the Columbus roster this year after starting the year in Finland with JYP. He spent the 2019-20 season with AHL Cleveland, posting numbers that weren’t anything to write home about on a poor Monsters team: 10-18-4 with a .901 save percentage.
Vehvilainen has an impressive SM-Liiga track record in Finland, though. A sixth-round overage pick of the Jackets in 2018, Vhvilainen went 40-13-13 with a .928 save percentage in the two seasons before he crossed the pond. Still reasonably young as far as goalies go (age 24), he’s earned two goalie-of-the year awards in Finland. There is some upside worth exploring here as Vehvilainen has just 35 games of North American experience under his belt.
Veini Vehvilainen Statistics
|Finland U20 (all)||International-Jr||10||-||.877|
|Finland U20 (all)||International-Jr||15||-||.922|
|Columbus Blue Jackets||NHL||1||5.63||.750||0|