Canadiens notebook: Hughes had no option but to deal Cup-clinching Lehkonen to Avalanche

Colorado Avalanche left wing Artturi Lehkonen (62) reacts after scoring on Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) during the second period of Game 6 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Finals. (Phelan Ebenhack/AP)

Artturi Lehkonen is going to get paid.

That was the first thought running through my mind after watching him score the Stanley Cup-clinching goal for the Colorado Avalanche on Sunday.

Lehkonen, 26, a year away from unrestricted free agency, eligible for arbitration, and in the process of posting his best-ever NHL season, had already earned himself a much healthier raise on his $2.4-million salary than most Montreal Canadiens fans believed he had when he was traded to the Avalanche in March for a 2024 second-round pick and top defence prospect Justin Barron. He was holding the hammer in negotiations and playing like a player who could easily wield it — not necessarily pricing himself out of Montreal, but pricing himself in a range that would make accepting the package Avalanche general manager Joe Sakic was offering a lot more palatable for Canadiens GM Kent Hughes.

With so much money already going to Montreal’s middle-six forward group, with Lehkonen poised to cash in and hold down a spot in that portion of the roster, it wasn’t one to turn away from.

Hughes reportedly rejected several previous offers from Sakic — and other GMs — knowing exactly what he had in Lehkonen. He liked the versatile winger, was under no illusions about what it would likely end up costing to keep him in Montreal, and he was more than willing to pay it knowing the return on investment was practically guaranteed.

But with a cap-crunched roster, with a team bottoming out and heading into a reconstruction phase, and with an excellent offer on the table, Hughes did what was best for the Canadiens.

As for Sakic, he made the trade hoping it would soon lead him into Colorado’s room with bottles of Dom Perignon in both hands, a high-priced cigar dangling from his mouth, and the Cup he won twice as a player finally hoisted over his head as a builder.

It was supposed to be the one that pushed the Avalanche over the top, but it was hard to imagine it would be the one that sent them speeding downhill at terminal velocity. Sakic made other brilliant ones — plucking reliable veteran Andrew Cogliano out of San Jose for a 2024 fifth-round pick and getting defenceman Josh Manson from the Anaheim Ducks for defence prospect Drew Hellison and a 2023 second-rounder — but none more impactful than the one for Lehkonen, who put up eight goals and 14 points over Colorado’s remarkable 20-game run through the Nashville Predators, St. Louis Blues, Edmonton Oilers and two-time defending Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning.

The 26-year-old scored the goal that sent the Avalanche to the final, he scored the one that sent them to the locker room on Sunday with that fabled silver chalice in their possession, and he had two more game-winners in the playoffs. And I highly doubt he was thinking about all the extra greenbacks he’ll be pocketing in the near future because of his performance.

But Lehkonen is going to get paid. He’s going to get paid a lot, and likely over a five-to-seven-year term.

If Sakic wants to keep the annual cap figure reasonable — of course he does, with superstar Nathan MacKinnon making a palatable salary for just one more season and with Nazem Kadri, Andre Burakovsky, Valeri Nikushkin and Manson to pay before they can become unrestricted free agents this July — he’ll make the deal as long as he reasonably can.

Sakic should be happy to, though. He’ll be buying up the best years of Lehkonen’s career and investing in a player who almost always makes the right play over every square inch of the ice. He’ll be spending on a player who has consistently elevated his game when it’s matters most, a clutch scorer, and now a champion.

Congrats to Ismo Lehkonen

My second thought after Lehkonen scored the Cup-clinching goal was how happy I was for his father, Ismo.

He’s an NHL analyst over in Finland, a former coach and a hockey lifer, and he didn’t have the chance to be there when his son was playing for the Cup with the Canadiens a year ago. I can only imagine how special it was for him to be there on Sunday to watch Artturi realize his biggest dream.

Ismo’s a larger-than-life personality. He’s loud and outgoing, a complete extrovert and, in those ways, quite different from Artturi — though what Artturi gives off publicly is a lot more subdued than what he does with his friends and teammates. And he loves his son infinitely, but also lives to bust his chops.

On one of Ismo’s trips into town, during Artturi’s second or third season in the league (my memory’s too foggy to pin down which one) he met up with a bunch of us for a post-game beverage. I remember saying to him: “You know, Artturi’s playing some pretty good hockey here,” and Artturi really was.

Ismo replied, “He needs to put the damn puck in the net,” and then let out a huge laugh.

In that moment, he was every other Canadiens fan, discarding all the little things Lehkonen did every night to influence a positive result and just thinking about the missed chances.

Well, Ismo, Artturi put the damn puck in the net for the big one. A hearty congratulations to you both!

Luke Richardson a smart hire for Blackhawks

The deal, initially reported by’s Frank Seravalli, was formalized Monday for Canadiens assistant coach Luke Richardson to become the Chicago Blackhawks' head coach, with a press conference expected over the next couple of days to introduce him. And it’s a move that’s going to greatly benefit an organization looking to turn over its roster even more than the Canadiens intend to.

Every defenceman who played for Richardson over his four years behind Montreal’s bench raved about his approach. They consistently talked about how he saved instruction for the video room, about how he saw no value in harping on mistakes in the heat of the moment, about how he was a confidence builder and a coach who emphasized the importance of playing a well-rounded and physical game, and they loved and respected him.

It’s not hard to figure out why. Richardson played two decades in the NHL before venturing into a coaching career that saw him work as an assistant at the top level for eight seasons that bookended a four-year stint as head coach of the AHL’s Binghamton Senators, so he had the experience to relate to his players. But on top of that, he’s highly intelligent, he’s respectful, he’s an excellent communicator, he’s a leader, and he’s a nurturer.

It was after Richardson stepped in for head coach Dominique Ducharme in last year’s Stanley Cup semifinal that Ben Chiarot said he and the rest of the Canadiens’ defencemen would go through a wall for him.

“That’s the best compliment you can give a coach,” Chiarot said. “We’d go through a wall for him because we know he’d go through a wall for us. He’s a player’s coach.”

That’s the kind of coach you want for a team being stripped down to the screws and developed for long-term success. To get one of Richardson’s pedigree is a coup for Chicago, even if this is his first official head coaching job in the NHL.

Canadiens vacancy presents opportunity

What do you add to a staff run by a coach who was previously running a bantam bench? A staff whose two assistants are in their first NHL coaching roles?

Logically, the answer is experience.

It’s wishful thinking that one of several experienced NHL head coaches recently dispatched from a main gig would humble themselves to be Martin St. Louis’ wingman in Montreal, but those people have to be primary targets to fill the void left by Richardson.

It can’t just be anyone. It has to be someone who fits right.

But the search is on.

Perhaps St. Louis already has someone in mind, someone close to him with no NHL coaching experience, and would still prefer to bring that person on board.

But there’s an opportunity for the Canadiens to get something they don’t have behind their bench, and it’s hard to imagine them turning away from that.

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