BROSSARD, Que.— Running an informal poll in the Montreal Canadiens dressing room last season, I asked a number of players whom they thought was the most underrated player on their team.
I wanted to know who they felt deserved more attention and why. And while Phillip Danault, Montreal’s best two-way centre, was mentioned a lot, no other name came up more frequently than Artturi Lehkonen’s.
"It’s easy to get caught up with goals and assists, but people don’t realize how good Lehky is at breaking up plays with his stick, at forecheking, at backchecking, at doing all the small things that make a big difference," said associate captain Brendan Gallagher back in February. "He’s a very smart player, a very hard-working player, and he’s also a guy that plays so well at both ends that you can put him on any line and get a good result. There aren’t a lot of players you can say that about."
It’s a fact that’s hard to argue with. And it at least helps explain why Canadiens coach Claude Julien—and former coach Michel Therrien—consistently relied on Lehkonen to play big minutes over the past three seasons, even when his production waned.
Lehkonen, with his speed, his work ethic, his ability to play in all situations and on any line, is the type of player coaches—and players, evidently—love to have on their side. Is he under-appreciated by fans in Montreal? Perhaps he is a little bit.
Do they expect more from him? Absolutely. And with good reason.
Here’s a player who averaged a goal per game as he rose through the ranks of Finland’s top junior league. He’s a player who graduated to the country’s top men’s league at age 16 and found a way to immediately prove he could be a productive player at the pro level. He’s a player who thrived at all of the big international tournaments. And when it was time for Lehkonen to take on the challenge of playing in the Swedish Hockey League, he showed there that he could be an explosive scorer—breaking Daniel Alfredsson’s playoff scoring record en route to helping the Frolunda Lions to an SHL championship in 2016.
To see Lehkonen break into the NHL and notch 18 goals and 28 points in 73 games as a 21-year-old, to see him jump into a first-round Stanley Cup Playoff series against the New York Rangers and score two of Montreal’s 11 goals in their six-game loss, was to know that he could be a scorer at the highest level of hockey, too. And that’s why fans expect more, from an offensive standpoint, than what he’s given them over the last two seasons.
It’s also why Lehkonen expects more of himself.
On Thursday, after running through the gamut of physical tests the Canadiens opened training camp with, Lehkonen was asked what his goal for this season was.
"To be more consistent," he said. "I had a lot of stretches throughout my three years here in the NHL that I haven’t been able to produce, so I want to produce more consistently."
It’s why Lehkonen, who hails from Piikkio, Fin., focused more on his shooting than on any other aspect of his game over what he said was way too long of an off-season for him and his Canadiens teammates who missed the playoffs last year by just two points.
It’s something Lehkonen wasn’t able to do as much as he had liked to have after the 2017-18 season, which saw him produce just 12 goals and nine assists over 66 games. A back injury he played through that year, the one responsible for taking him out of action for 16 games from Nov. 11-Dec. 22, made it impossible to work on his shot the way he always had in the summers. That’s at least part of the reason he finished last season with just 11 goals in 82 games.
It’s not like the chances weren’t there for Lehkonen. According to naturalstattrick.com, only Brendan Gallagher and Andrew Shaw had more high-danger scoring chances at five-on-five on the team last season. Lehkonen also had the third-most shots on net, the fourth-most rush opportunities and he was eighth among forwards on the team at generating rebound opportunities with his shot at even-strength.
Was he unlucky? Absolutely.
"You can’t put it all on bad luck, either," said Lehkonen, who scored on 8.2 per cent of his shots last season. "You’ve got to be alert when the chance comes and you’ve got to be confident enough that you’re going to put the puck in the net."
For the 24-year-old, who signed a two-year, $4.8-million contract two months ago, it’s all about capitalizing now. And he feels the 221 games of NHL experience he’s gained, coupled with the work he put in on his shot this summer, is going to pay dividends.
"You’ve got to shoot a lot," he said. "You’ve got to find the confidence on your shot and find the right holes. It’s going to come that way."
If it does, there’s no question Lehkonen will get his due.