It’s not perfect; it’s what we got.
Those words — memorably uttered by former coach Mike Babcock, following the acquisition of lefty Jake Muzzin — might have danced through the minds of Toronto Maple Leafs upon the club’s securing of highly coveted free agent Mikko Lehtonen Monday.
Another left defenceman?!
The most glaring weakness on the Leafs’ depth chart has long been RD, and Lehtonen holds his stick the same way as the roster’s most entrenched top-four blueliners, Morgan Rielly and Muzzin.
Yep, the 26-year-old pro is a left shot like enticing, developing defencemen Rasmus Sandin and Travis Dermott. And, it says here, the bulk of Toronto’s NHL depth options are left shots, too: Martin Marincin, Calle Rosen, Teemu Kivihalme….
Although Kyle Dubas wouldn’t commit to a pairing or position for his latest European prize in 2020-21, the general manager underscored Lehtonen’s versatility as a bonus.
“I played in Sweden a whole season on the right side [with HV71 Jonkoping in 2018-19], so it’s not important to me. Doesn’t matter, right or left side, I’m OK with both. Actually, sometimes I like more right side,” Lehtonen said on a conference call Monday.
“I think the Leafs are a really good organization, a traditional organization, and I think my game fits pretty well with Toronto, because they want to skate well.”
Skate well. And sign well.
Lehtonen marks the second pandemic win for Jim Paliafito — officially the Leafs’ senior director of player evaluation, unofficially their KHL whisperer.
Upon fending off several interested competitors and inking Lehtonen to a one-year, $925,000 contract, Dubas was quick to give an assist to European scouting director Ari Vuori and full credit to Paliafito, who also helped the club outbid the field for winger Alexander Barabanov in April.
“Another testament to the work that Jim does. I think this one, in particular, would be Jim. He’s built a relationship with Mikko. He built a relationship with Mikko’s agent in Finland,” explained Dubas, wowed by the undrafted defenceman upon flying to Helsinki to see Lehtonen play in-person.
“Rather than try to cast a wide net on a lot of different players and try to haul whatever we can, we really constrain our focus to a few guys that we think are a great fit for us. Then Jim really does all the legwork and deserves all the credit.”
A multiple gold medallist for the Finnish national team, Lehtonen fell in love with the game when Mom and Dad took him to the nearest rink at age 3. He is familiar with Kasperi Kapanen. He’s picked the brains of Teuvo Teravainen, Rasmus Ristolainen and Arturri Lehkonen to learn about making the North American jump. He counts Mikko Rantanen as a good friend. And he’s not quite certain why he wasn’t drafted.
“It doesn’t matter. Like, I have proved I can play at a really high level,” Lehtonen said. “If you work hard and believe in your dreams, I think that’s the way.”
Finding — and convincing — undrafted, inexpensive free agents like Lehtonen is integral to Dubas’s approach to the salary cap. And the executive has been aggressive in making it work, in this case earning the blessing of Jokerit GM Jari Kurri, who let the KHL’s top-scoring defenceman out of the final year of his contract so he could chase a Stanley Cup.
“That he continued to improve rapidly throughout the season as well made us only more and more confident that he’d be a fit for us,” Dubas said.
“Once we commit that we’re going to go all-in for a free agent and know it’s gonna be highly competitive against a dozen — or dozens — of other teams, we really try to get familiar with the player and educate our entire staff.”
Lehtonen’s recent resume, which includes a 2019 world championship and threepeating as KHL Defenceman of the Month, made for a particularly competitive NHL auction.
But with entry-level money on the table, the persuading comes down to fit.
Hence, the importance of Lehtonen’s willingness to play his weak side, his smooth stride, and his seeing-eye wrister from the point.
That the KHL has already begun implementing more small, NHL-sized ice surfaces has taken some of the guesswork out of importing talent west — making UFAs like Lehtonen all the more desirable.
“We knew this was going to be a really competitive matter,” Dubas said. “Things are only getting more competitive as teams find ways to bring players into their organizations that have professional experience and that can come in without a huge initial price tag.”
Dubas chuckled when the topic of his imperfect blue line came up. The GM understands it’s a focal point among Leafs critics. He knows losing veterans Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci to free agency is a strong possibility if not a forgone conclusion.
“We’re going to be able to bring back Travis Dermott, who will be a restricted free agent,” Dubas said.
“But it’s certainly an area that we need to see progress in, whether it’s the development of Dermott or the development of Sandin or [righty Timothy] Liljegren, or it’s the acquisition of players like Mikko, or through other means.”