Why the Maple Leafs traded defenceman Mikko Lehtonen

Maple Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly discusses the importance that TJ Brodie has brought to his D pairing and to the team in general.

TORONTO – From the Toronto Maple Leafs’ perspective, trading Mikko Lehtonen after a nine-game trial run is more about doing right by the player and their own homegrown defence prospects than it is about acquiring an asset in return.

General manager Kyle Dubas and chief European scout-slash-recruiter Jim Paliafito went to great lengths to lure the coveted 2020 KHL Defenceman of the Year to Toronto in the first place. So, Dubas wanted to give the 27-year-old Finn a shot to keep his NHL dreams alive once it became apparent that Lehtonen wasn’t ready to wrestle away meaningful minutes and trust from Travis Dermott on Toronto’s bottom pairing.

“He’s an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season here, and it's a big year for him,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said Saturday. “So, I think there's something to be said for that as well. We wish him all the best.”

Lehtonen heads to the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for 24-year-old goaltending prospect Veini Vehvilainen.

Columbus’s Finnish GM, Jarmo Kekalainen, was among the executives in pursuit of Lehtonen as he was piling up points in the KHL for Jokerit Helsinki. Lehtonen will join the Jackets’ taxi squad after obtaining a work visa and clearing quarantine.

The offensive-minded left shot and power-play specialist should have a greater opportunity to exercise his strengths in Columbus, where the power-play ranks just 25th overall (16.22 per cent).

To be fair to Lehtonen, who had spent his entire career on the large European ice, it was tough to leap over the likes of Dermott and prized prospects Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren on Toronto’s defensive chart.

To ensure Lehtonen was given his nine-game tryout, Keefe experimented with dressing seven defencemen and scratched Dermott and Sandin in the early season more than he wished.

“Not having exhibition games really made it difficult for any incoming player to get the chance to sort of get the bugs out to adjust to the league, show what they could do, earn some additional trust, all those things,” Keefe explained. “All things considered, he adjusted to the situation.”

Lehtonen notched three assists, took two minor penalties, and registered a plus-1 rating in sheltered minutes. He showed creative flashes on breakouts and on the second power-play unit but was less assertive without the puck.

“We had Travis Dermott on the outside through training camp and just made a decision once the games were getting going that Lehts needed more time, and that’s how it worked out. But he's definitely a talent, and he worked really hard here and waited for his chance,” Keefe said.

The Lehtonen trade paves a clearer path for Liljegren and Sandin (still recovering from a foot fracture) to work their way back into the Leafs lineup this season, should injury strike.

“We've got a number of other people in the organization that didn't get the opportunity even that Mikko had here this season,” Keefe said. “It'll open up a little more space and opportunity for them.”

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