VANCOUVER — Don’t think we didn’t notice.
When we posted a quote from this interview on Twitter, the one with Montreal Canadiens general manager Kent Hughes saying he wasn’t trying to trade Artturi Lehkonen, we saw the responses. We know most Canadiens fans want Lehkonen to stay through the Mar. 21 deadline, that they have come to appreciate his value now more than ever, and that they probably only feel stronger about it after watching him extend his point streak to five games in a 5-3 loss to the Vancouver Canucks on Wednesday.
With Goals 12 and 13, the 26-year-old tied Nick Suzuki for second on the Canadiens in scoring. He added an assist in the third period to make it six goals and eight points on this run, and that put himself on pace for 20 goals and 23 assists over 82 games—career highs in both categories and the type of production Canadiens fans expected from him regularly after he burst onto the scene with 18 goals and 28 points in his first 73 NHL games.
Considering all of that, no one wants to see Lehkonen leave town, except for perhaps all 16 teams who will participate in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Even a few on the bubble should have interest in a player who can do so much more than score goals and assists to bolster their chances.
We don’t want to belabour the point, because we got into this deep after the Canadiens kicked this five-game road trip off with a win in Ottawa, but it’s our belief that the market for Lehkonen will be too high to turn away from. We emphasized that it would be a no-brainer to sign the Finn if the Canadiens weren’t already overflowing with high-paid support players who they’ll struggle to move between now and the deadline, but reality is in the way of that.
Lehkonen is a pending restricted free agent with arbitration rights, he’s one year away from unrestricted free agency and staring at a golden opportunity to earn a significant raise on his $2.3-million salary, and though the Canadiens may not have someone as effective to fill his role, they do have players coming who can help account for his loss.
We’re not guaranteeing Lehkonen moves.
If the Canadiens can’t get what they would consider to be fair value—a good prospect, or a conditional second-round pick that could become a first, or a late first, in our estimation—perhaps he’ll be here through the end of the season.
We’re just not betting on that outcome.
And we’d urge you to take Hughes’ comment to us about not trying to trade him for what it was—a guarded one that came moments after he told us right off the hop he wasn’t about to spill the details of his plans with the deadline finally in view.
It was also a message to any potential suitors, one that said, “We’re not giving Artturi Lehkonen away.”
We’re at a point where some teams will poke and prod and try to get him on the cheap. But as we get closer and closer to 3:00 p.m. ET on the 21st, the Canadiens are gaining more and more leverage to stand their ground for something of real value.
“He’s got a rep around the league of doing everything the right way and now the puck’s going in for him,” said one scout in attendance at Wednesday’s game. “We really like him. Any team with a real chance of making the playoffs or contending would really like him. And it’s not a secret that he tends to play better under pressure. He raises his game at playoff time. I’ve seen it. A lot of us have seen it. And we talk about that stuff in meetings.”
There’s been evidence, since Lehkonen was drafted 55th overall in 2013, that this player steps up when it matters most. He broke Daniel Alfredsson’s playoff scoring record with the Frolunda Indians before coming to Montreal. He put up four points in his first six NHL playoff games, found his best self in the 2020 bubble, and scored the clutch goal that sent the Canadiens to the 2021 Stanley Cup Final.
The pressure doesn’t faze Lehkonen. With his name circulating through the rumour mill at warp speed, he’s going through his best offensive sequence of the season.
“It’s not the first season that my name has been dropped, so I know the reality of the situation,” Lehkonen said. “But it’s out of my control. I can’t do anything about it. So, I guess just keep playing well and try to help this team win hockey games.
“I don’t really have to block it out that much. I know how it is, I’ve been in Montreal for six years.”
The chances that he stays, though, are diminishing.
“On winning teams you usually find guys like that. On championship teams,” said Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis. “He plays like a player coaches like to have on their team.”