TORONTO — When Lauri Marjamaki was coaching the Finnish national team, he always found Mikko Lehtonen to be a particularly keen student.
They would speak occasionally in Tampere about the defenceman’s growth and it wasn’t only the coach doing the talking. Lehtonen wanted to know what Marjamaki saw in the details of his game. He’d ask for development targets.
“He wants to all the time know,” Marjamaki recalled Monday. “I think that it is one of the reasons why he is now so good because he is so motivated all the time and he needs so much feedback from the coaches and everyone.”
Lehtonen signed a one-year, entry-level contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs worth $925,000 and fully intends to jump into the NHL team’s top-six on the blue line next season.
In an uncertain economy, he represents a badly needed cost-controlled option for the Leafs — one of the teams who stand to feel the most pain from a flat salary cap in 2020-21. It’s notable that Lehtonen passed on the possibility of Schedule ‘A’ and ‘B’ performance bonuses, which probably would have taken Toronto out of the running for his services.
He’s basically making a big one-year bet on himself with the prospect of unrestricted free agency on the horizon in 2021.
“I think my game fits pretty well with Toronto because they want to skate,” Lehtonen told reporters on a conference call.
“For us, I think we want to really work towards his strengths and what he does best and fit that into our program,” said Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas. “I agree with Mikko 100 per cent why it’s a fit for us and him: It’s the way that he plays and the way that we want to play. His ability to be a two-way defenceman.”
The biggest question surrounding Lehtonen is how he developed into a player who found himself with several NHL suitors at age 26 and what that might tell us about his likelihood for success in North America?
He’s been hiding in plain view. He was an undrafted prospect that was part of Finland’s surprising gold-medal victory at the 2014 world junior championship, getting overshadowed by fellow 1994-born defencemen Rasmus Ristolainen and Olli Maatta.
He won a Swedish Hockey League title with HV71 in 2017 and lost in the championship of Finland’s Liiga while playing for Tappara the following year. He played for Marjamaki on the national team at the 2017 world championship and 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, but his big breakout didn’t arrive until last year’s worlds — where Lehtonen played a starring role in another surprising Finnish gold-medal victory and earned a spot on the tournament all-star team.
That came with an unmistakable boost in confidence, according to Marjamaki, who was thrilled to be reunited with Lehtonen at Jokerit Helsinki this season. He played the defenceman more than 22 minutes per night and saw him explode for 49 points in 60 games — the sixth-highest total of any player in the KHL.
“I think he’s so aware of his strengths now. He trusts his skating,” said Marjamaki. “That is so important nowadays with what you require of your D-men. He can play a tight defensive game because he’s such a good skater and … can win [a battle] with the forechecker, especially, and make breakouts under the pressure.”
Another strong quality, according to the coach, is an ability to get a high percentage of his shots on net. Lehtonen keeps his head up while skating and can adjust the angle of his release to react to what opposing players are doing — which helps account for the 17 goals and 32 assists he amassed this season.
His main defensive partner with Jokerit was Sami Lepisto, a fellow left-shot who was tasked with playing the right side.
Marjamaki believes Lehtonen is best suited to his strong side because it allows him to make plays with confidence: “He played all the time to the left. Sometimes, of course, if we’re playing only five D’s then we rotated, but I think that left D is a better side for him.”
That’s a relevant piece of information given the imbalance among the Leafs defensive corps, where Justin Holl and Timothy Liljegren are the only right shots currently under contract for next season. Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, Rasmus Sandin, Travis Dermott (a restricted free agent still in need of a new deal) and Lehtonen all play the left.
If there is one weakness to Lehtonen’s game, according to Marjamaki, it’s that he holds himself to an incredibly high standard. That can lead to moments on the ice where he’s too hard on himself, which will be an impulse he needs to manage during a gruelling 82-game season where ‘OK’ can sometimes be good enough.
It’s an instinct that ultimately comes from a good place. And it helped transform him from a teenager that no NHL team was willing to take a chance on to “one of the best D-men in Europe,” said Marjamaki.
“He was not a good prospect when he played his first games in Finnish League, for example, in TPS Turku [from 2012 to 2015],” Marjamaki added. “He had to move somewhere else.”
Lehtonen’s move to Toronto is the biggest one yet.
It would never have happened if Jokerit didn’t first agree to release him from the final year of his KHL contract — something they were under no obligation to do. You rarely see clubs take that action with a star player, but they decided to put Lehtonen’s interests above their own.
“I’m so proud of Mikko,” said Marjamaki. “We talked about it with [Jokerit general manager] Jari Kurri — that if he wants to go and he has a good opportunity to sign the NHL contract that it is OK with us because we know Mikko and he’s so hungry to go into the NHL. He is now 26 years old and I think that it is the best age to go.
“I hope he can play in the top-six with the Maple Leafs.”
May 4, 2020