Lehkonen vital to Canadiens extending surprising success

Montreal Canadiens forward Artturi Lehkonen (62) carries the puck during the second period of an hockey game against the Buffalo Sabres, Friday, Nov. 23, 2018, in Buffalo N.Y. (Jeffrey T. Barnes/AP)

To the surprise of essentially everyone, including probably their own management team, the Montreal Canadiens are still in the thick of the playoff race in the third month of the 2018-19 season. They’re hanging around in that second wild card spot while Carey Price is giving them a mediocre .900 save percentage so far, and Antti Niemi has been even worse.

The season has not been without growing pains, with the Canadiens being a fairly poor defensive team. November wasn’t as kind to them as the opening month, but hot starts from Max Domi, Jonathan Drouin, Tomas Tatar, and Jeff Petry have put them on pace to make the playoffs, against all the odds made in the off-season.

The return of Shea Weber to the lineup also helps bring more danger to the power play, creating more offence from the backend with the NHL’s most dangerous point shot, not to mention the impact he has in his own end of the ice.

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In order to keep this level of play up, though, the Canadiens are going to need some scoring from other areas when Domi, Drouin, and Tatar inevitably cool off a little bit.

Brendan Gallagher is who he has been, and I don’t expect the NHL’s leader in scoring chances at 5-on-5 to stop scoring a healthy portion of goals. His playmaking ability keeps improving, too, so his line should be strong throughout the season.

One area where the Canadiens should see a rise in production as the season goes on is off the sticks of Artturi Lehkonen and Jesperi Kotkaniemi.

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When Lehkonen and Kotkaniemi are on the ice, the Canadiens control the most important factors in goal scoring at an absurd rate, creating more offence than when they’re off, and allowing very little on the defensive side.

In fact, no Canadiens forward has been on the ice for fewer passes to the slot against per 20 minutes than Kotkaniemi, partially because Claude Julien does a good job protecting his minutes, and partially because he and Lehkonen have been great defensively.

In fact, when this pair is off the ice, the Canadiens actually lose the pass-to-the-slot battle; recording just 49.7 per cent of the total passes to the slot. When the pair is on the ice, the Canadiens control about 55 per cent of the passes to the slot.

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Lehkonen has been a scoring chance machine for his entire career in both the NHL and Swedish Hockey League, but, so far in North America, his goal production hasn’t followed his chance production. It is very rare for a player with a shot as good as Lehkonen’s to produce chances for so long and never be rewarded, though.

Playing with a creative centre like Kotkaniemi allows Lehkonen to get more chances off the rush and receive more dangerous passes, which should produce benefits before long.

That ability to get scoring chances isn’t just an even strength thing for Lehkonen either; as over this season and last, Gallagher is the only Canadien who has produced more scoring chances or more high danger chances on the power play.

Another reason why I think Lehkonen, specifically, is going to have a strong remainder of the season is that he’s worked hard to diversify his game, becoming a much better and more successful playmaker.

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The number of passes Lehkonen makes in the offensive zone hasn’t changed much since his rookie season, but after being a below average slot passer, this season he has focused on being a bigger contributor in setting up his teammates’ scoring chances and increased the frequency with which he attempts passes into the offensive zone.

As a result, he’s gone from one of the Canadiens’ worst 5-on-5 passers in getting the puck into the slot over the last two seasons to within the top-six players on the team this year.

Despite a focus on more difficult passes to complete, Lehkonen’s offensive zone pass completion percentage actually improved, thanks in part to a dramatically high pass success rate off the rush where he has completed 90 per cent of his pass attempts and shown chemistry, in particular, with Kotkaniemi on controlled entries.

Combined, Kotkaniemi and Lehkonen have just eight goals this season, but don’t be surprised if both of them end up with closer to 20 by the end of the season.

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