The Toronto Maple Leafs have announced today that they’ve signed Mikko Lehtonen out of Jokerit of the KHL.
Lehtonen comes out of the KHL as one of the most talented and sought-after KHL FAs this season. After becoming a consistent 20-point scorer in Liiga and the SHL, Lehtonen decided to take a step to the KHL. He didn’t just take that step though, he absolutely leapt onto the scene. Lehtonen absolutely thrived with Jokerit, scoring 17 goals and adding 32 assists for 48 points. His totals led his team in points and assists. He finished at the top of the league in goals, assists, and points scored by a defenseman.
After it was clear that he would leave Jokerit, numerous teams were rumoured to be in the running for Lehtonen, including the Rangers, Devils, and Canadiens. So why Toronto? I’ll get to that in a second.
What Does Lehtonen Bring to Toronto
Mikko Lehtonen looks to be a fit in the Leafs’ high-offense system. He’s done a fantastic job of moving the puck at the KHL level. His shot is one to be feared, his wrister is a huge part of why he’s been able to score so many goals. He absolutely lets it rip, leaving goalies to hope and pray they can get on it.
He’s a great complementary piece to a dynamic Leafs offense. It’s possible that he could compete for a 2nd pairing role and get ice time on PP2.
Travis Dermott is known in part for his openness to play the right side. He’s played it throughout his career, in junior and in the pros. He’s pretty much a lock to try his off-side for the season.
Although Morgan Rielly has found his success on the left side, he played the right as Jake Muzzin eased into his role in Toronto. It’s entirely possible that Rielly could switch to his off-side full-time.
Lastly, Lehtonen has played the right side before. However, as he gets used to the NHL, it might be better to keep him on his strong side.
This would make the Leafs defense some version of:
Rearrange as you wish.
The Lehtonen signing is another fantastic cost-controlled signing by the Leafs. European FAs are subject to different ELC rules, meaning they need an ELC until the age of 27. Lehtonen is 26, turning 27 in January.
Somehow, someway, Kyle Dubas got Lehtonen to not take any performance bonuses on his deal. This likely helps with the Leafs’ usage of LTIR, even though the contracts of Nathan Horton and David Clarkson expire, they still end up using it often throughout the season (think Andreas Johnsson, Ilya Mikheyev, etc.)
It’s safe to assume that the deal is 925k for one year. The deal expires with Lehtonen becoming a UFA.
Why Would Lehtonen Sign in Toronto
Mikko Lehtonen entered the weekend as one of the most pursued KHL FAs still on the market. Teams like New Jersey were considered frontrunners, after all, he would fill a needed hole in numerous teams. He would’ve definitely gotten a large role on a few teams. So why Toronto?
Simple. Lehtonen’s game revolves around being a stellar offensive defenseman. Even though he’s not considered terrible defensively, creating offense is his thing, it’s what he does best. You know what Toronto does best? Creating offense. On a team with some of the best offensive talent in the league, in a place where he won’t really be expected to play much defense (sorry Frederik Andersen).
The logic is pretty clear. On his ELC, he’s not going to take the gamble of jumping into the league as a team’s top defenseman. Instead, he looks to up his offensive input in a system that will support it. Then he can sign with the aforementioned clubs that were competing for his services. He’ll likely look for more financial security compared to what he’d get if he’s thrown into a key role and doesn’t meet expectations for whatever reason.
In other words, Mikko Lehtonen probably isn’t a long-term piece for Toronto. That opens the way to Travis Dermott and Timothy Liljegren, two players that find themselves in awkward roles this season.
So, What’s Next
Well, a few things are made clear by this move. 1. The Tyson Barrie era in Toronto is over. Finito. Fin. Before, there was some kind of fit between the two parties, for a deal that would raise Barrie’s value before leaving next season. Instead, the Leafs have found their newest offensive defenseman. 2. It looks like the Leafs defense is mostly set for next season. The only player that has a shot at being moved right now on the blue line is Travis Dermott, but the Leafs believe in him. They likely won’t give up on him so quickly. They have their full-time guys, they have two depth guys in Martin Marincin and Timothy Liljegren (who’ll likely split time between the AHL and NHL). The Leafs will likely only sign depth players come July 1st, their main pickups have been made.
Anyways, sit with me and watch this.
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