Former Habs Check Up: Artturi Lehkonen

Eggs Bennett 22-11

June 3, 2022

With the Montreal Canadiens already well into off-season mode, Habs fans continue to root for some former Habs who were moved at the trade deadline. Two of those players were subjects of previous check-ups and have already been eliminated. Articles about Tyler Toffoli and Ben Chiarot can be accessed at habather.ca. Let’s turn our attention to the third player moved at the deadline – Artturi Lehkonen.

How it started…   

Arturri Lehkonen was drafted by the Montreal Canadiens in the second round of the 2013 draft at 55th overall. Lehkonen continued to develop in Europe, for a year in Finland and then two in the Swedish Hockey League. He signed his entry level contract with the Habs on May 8, 2016 and made his move to the NHL the following season. Lehkonen was in the middle of his sixth year in Montreal when he was dealt at the trade deadline.

Lehkonen served the Habs well, despite being misunderstood and often criticized by a portion of the fanbase. When he scored 18 goals in his rookie season, he raised expectations in relation to his goal-scoring ability. Lehkonen will bring secondary scoring to any line-up, but the beauty is found in his 200-foot game, his dogged determination on every single shift, and the fluidity with which he can move throughout the line-up and fill the role. In his time in Montreal, he saw time on every line, killed penalties, and rarely took a night off. Of the trade deadline deals, letting Lehkonen go was tough for fans.

Nevertheless, at the end of this season Lehkonen is a restricted free agent, and his next contract will eat into his UFA years. That means he is due a significant raise indeed, and with a considerable cap headache to deal with, GM Kent Hughes was willing to listen to a team prepared to make a serious offer. That offer came from the Rockies Region.  

On March 22nd, with the clock ticking toward the deadline, Lehkonen was traded to the Colorado Avalanche for defence prospect Justin Barron and a second-round pick in the 2024 draft. Barron, the 25th overall pick in 2020, had spent most of this season in their AHL affiliate, where he played 43 games and scored 20 points (five goals, 15 assists). The Habs retained 50% on Lehkonen’s contract to make the salary cap work.

How it’s going…

The Habs will draft first overall at the draft in Montreal on July 7th, confirming that selling at the deadline was profitable.  Beyond that, they got a brief look at the return for Lehkonen. Barron was able to play five games for the Canadiens before an injury ended his season. What we saw, we liked. Barron is a fluid skater, a smooth puck-mover, who can walk the blue line with the play in the offensive zone. He has a strong shot and managed a goal and an assist in five games with the Habs. The kid won’t turn 21 until November, so there is still lots of developmental time ahead, which will likely be split between Montreal and Laval.

In Colorado, Lehkonen is proving his worth. He has five goals and three assists for six points in 12 playoff games, and his underlying stats are solid while playing on a line with Nazem Kadri against the opposition’s top lines. He’s also seeing ice time on the second power play unit. Habs fans are looking at Lehkonen in their top six and wondering why he was never used properly in Montreal.

There are two factors to consider. Firstly, in the Bergevin era there was a heavy focus on defence, and the 200-foot game. Lehkonen played the role he was asked to, and sometimes that included top six minutes.

The second consideration is how the top six of each team compares. Lehkonen is on a line with Nazem Kadri, who had 28 goals and 87 points this season, and Mikko Rantanen, he of 36 goals and 92 points. They’re the second line behind Nathan MacKinnon’s trio. Lehkonen is thriving in a top six where he doesn’t have to be the scorer, and can be a complementary player. He can play his 200-foot game, create space for his linemates, forecheck the other team into dust, and contribute.

At no point during Lehkonen’s time in Montreal could he have had linemates in the top six of that quality. There was no elite talent for him to work with. That day is coming for the Habs, but not during Lehkonen’s prime, unfortunately. The Habs could have made him a fixture in their top six, and at times they did insert him, but it would never have looked like this. The talent for him to complement simply was not there.

Was it worth it?

This was a deal that worked for both teams – the kind of trade that makes trade deadline day worth it every year, and that teams hope they can replicate when they do winter business.

Lacking depth at the right-handed defence position, the offer of a top-4 puck-moving RHD with a strong shot, and a physical edge, was enough to pry Lehkonen out of Montreal. Unquestionably, the addition of Justin Barron filled a significant hole for the Habs, a hole he can continue to fill as he grows and develops with the Habs new core… and that’s before we can even imagine what might become of the pick.

Colorado is currently battling Edmonton for a berth in the Stanley Cup Final. They have no regrets about adding a guy like Lehkonen to support the fight. According to Coach Jared Bednar, Lehkonen can do it all, and completes the Avalanche top six. But here is the kicker. This was not a rental. The Avalanche can re-sign Lehkonen this summer and watch his prime kick in perfectly with their Cup window or, if they can’t make it work under the cap, they can trade him and recover some assets.

As the trade deadline was approaching, I asked Jared Book of Habs Eyes on the Prize to predict who would win the Stanley Cup. His response? “The team who trades for Lehkonen.” That’s looking like a pretty smart call.

There are several former Habs still competing for the Stanley Cup, including Gerard Gallant, Corey Perry and Brett Kulak. But if work ethic and character mean anything, none of them deserve it more than Artturi Lehkonen.

Published by Lori Bennett

Hockey is my hobby. I love a respectful hockey chat or debate, but it stops being fun if we're jerks.

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