The Toronto Maple Leafs announced Monday that the team has signed defenceman Mikko Lehtonen to a one year entry level contract worth $925,000.
Lehtonen is a 26-year-old defenceman from Finland who spent this season playing for Jokerit in the KHL where he registered 17 goals and 32 assists in 60 games. After he and Jokerit agreed to “mutually part ways” last week, the sense was he was going to draw a ton of interest from NHL teams, with some analysts calling him the best defenceman outside of North America at the moment.
In the end, he chose the Maple Leafs, a team he considers to be a good fit for his style of play. So with the addition of Lehtonen, what does it exactly mean for the Maple Leafs defence moving forward?
Some fans showed concern about the fact that Lehtonen wasn’t exactly the type of defenceman the Leafs needed. Based on his stats alone, you can tell Lehtonen is an offensive defenceman, and the Maple Leafs aren’t at a shortage of players that can help put the puck in the back of the net. The Leafs need more defenders who are defensive-minded first and foremost, as right now the only two they really have are Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl.
Lehtonen also shoots left handed, and with the possibility of Barrie and Ceci leaving for free agency this summer, as of right now there is a chance that Holl will be the only right-handed defenceman in the Maple Leafs top 6 next season.
At the end of the day, who cares? Now obviously that’s a little ridiculous, as those are genuine concerns, but Lehtonen is a talented player. Can you ever have enough talented players in your system? And at under 1 million, he could end up being a massive bargain for the Maple Leafs next season, who will need to save every penny they can to stay under the salary cap next season.
Now as it stands, if the Maple Leafs re-sign their pending RFA in Travis Dermott and let Barrie and Ceci walk to free-agency, the Maple Leafs could defence could look something like this next year.
Rielly – Dermott
Muzzin – Holl
Sandin – Lehtonen
Both Lehtonen and Dermott have some experience playing the right side, but neither of them would likely consider it their strong suit. Lehtonen has mentioned experience playing on the right side for a bit while in Sweden, so it is absolutely something worth trying for the Maple Leafs to see if it works.
It’s a good signing for the Maple Leafs, at Lehtonen’s cap hit makes it even better. Leafs fans should be really excited to watch this player next season, as I can’t imagine him signing in Toronto without the promise of being on the NHL roster.
Now with the Lektonen in the fold, the Maple Leafs blueline for next season is starting to look a bit clearer. The big question is more about if the blueline showed earlier in the article will stand true into next season, or will there be a move vie trades or free agency that will change things a bit more.
Rielly, Muzzin, and Sandin aren’t going anywhere. The same goes for Lehtonen, and Holl has some great chemistry with Muzzin this season, as well as being their only true right-handed defenceman at the moment. It’s when you get to Travis Dermott that you might really start to wonder if a change could be made to upgrade the defence.
Dermott did not have a strong season up to the point of the pause in mid-March. Now he did start to pick it up as the season went on and did miss the first little bit of the season due to an injury. However he struggled a lot throughout the majority of the season, and it might have cost him big time with his next contract. There’s a real possibility Dermott could accept a short term deal between 1-2 million dollars per year.
Or, the Maple Leafs could look to move him along with a forward in a trade to upgrade their defence. The Maple Leafs are flooded with top 9 forwards and at this rate, they could easily have one, maybe two players playing on the fourth line that don’t deserve to be there. Along with the big four upfront, you have to look at Kapanen, Kerfoot, Johnsson, Mikheyev, Hyman, and Barabanov all possibly looking for top 9 spots. Throw in prospect Nick Robertson to that list as well, as he looks like he has outgrown the OHL but can’t be sent to the AHL, therefor leaving the NHL as the most likely destination for him, and Dubas won’t want him developing on the 4th line.
Just looking at that list, it seems inevitable that the Leafs trade one of those forwards this summer, and could package one along with Dermott if they wanted to acquire a right-shot defenceman with term on their contract. Kapanen, Johnsson, or Kerfoot would likely bring back the best return, but they could also look to free agency. If they were to bring in a top 4 defenceman from free agency, the Leafs might have to still move a forward for picks and/or prospects to clear up the salary cap space for such a transaction.
The bottom line is that it’s impossible to not see the signing of Mikko Lehtonen as nothing but a massive win for the Maple Leafs. No one has any idea how he will perform once he gets to the NHL, he might become a star, or he might just not find success here. Reality is the Maple Leafs just acquired an extremely talented defender without having to give up anything in return, on a one year deal for under one million dollars.
The Maple Leafs blueline looking into next year looks stronger right now than it did a week ago. We will now wait and see if Dubas feels comfortable with his blueline as it stands with the players he has under control beyond this season or feels that it’s necessary to find a way to upgrade it, either through trade or free agency. It will absolutely be a big storyline to follow with this team during the off-season.
Stay safe everyone.