The Finnish Bobby Orr era didn’t even make it to ten games. On Friday afternoon, the Toronto Maple Leafs announced that the team had traded defenceman Mikko Lehtonen to the Columbus Blue Jackets. In return, they received goaltender Veini Vehvilainen.
The move was a surprise to many in Toronto, as it came so quickly into Lehtonen’s time with the team. The Maple Leafs signed the 27-year-old as an undrafted free agent in May, giving him an opportunity to cross the pond after playing pro hockey in SM-Liiga, the SHL, and the KHL over the past nine and a half seasons. Most notable was his KHL play for Jokerit, in which he picked up defenceman of the year honours last season and began this year with 17 points in as many games before coming to the Leafs.
Expectations were high, as a result of both Toronto’s perceived holes on the back end and the fact that people got to watch and follow along with his highlights with Jokerit while they waited for the NHL to resume. This poses itself an issue, though, given the difference in style that the European game provides, and the much different role that Lehtonen was playing. With Jokerit, he was privy to much more more open ice, and his minutes were heavily tailored to offensive and powerplay deployment – neither of those things were available to him.
Defencemen tend to be the most difficult KHL players to predict the transition of, especially in a case like him, so more experienced analysts were a bit more tempered in expectation. The fact that the Leafs added TJ Brodie in the fall also took away some potential ice time, and really made this a battle of bottom pair options.
The reality of this situation comes with in that battle, as Lehtonen did little to separate himself from the logjam of Travis Dermott, Zach Bogosian, Martin Marincin, Calle Rosen, Rasmus Sandin, and Timothy Liljegren, who are all sitting in the range of #5-7 talents at this moment. Despite not showing much in training camp, Lehtonen was given the benefit of the doubt and took the #7 spot to begin the year, but the semi-surprising competence of Bogosian and the lack of standout effort from Lehtonen in his games drawn in stretched his appearances out further and further. While he was able to pick up three assists, he did little else from a possession, shot generation, or physical perspective, offering the team a repeatable talent level without a separating skill.
That brings us to today. Lehtonen hadn’t drawn into the Maple Leafs lineup since playing 9:50 against the Flames on February 24th, and earlier this week, was assigned to the Toronto Marlies. Before he could play a game in the minors, this deal was done – likely as an act of goodwill, acknowledging the lack of opportunity for him without making a recently signed player frustrated. While he was a rookie to the pro game, 27 is far from a prospect’s age, so there’s no doubt that his clock is ticking.
Ultimately, while keeping Lehtonen around would’ve been a nice luxury, it didn’t project to be a necessity, so it made more sense to do right by the player and free up some room for depth options both more tenured in the organization (Marincin, Rosen) and younger (Sandin, Liljegren).
Coming back the other way is Veini Vehvilainen, a 24-year-old Finnish netminder who is a little bit of a mystery box – as most goaltending prospects are. Drafted in the sixth round of the 2018 Entry Draft, Vehvilainen has played 35 pro games in North America, following up six years and change in the Finnish pros with 33 AHL games last season and 1 game in each of Cleveland and Columbus (his NHL debut) this year. In those 33 games of 2019/20, Vehvilainen posted a 10-18-4 record and 0.901 save percentage. These aren’t great numbers, but also not significantly far off from his 1B in Matiss Kivlenieks or the AHL league average.
They’re also a significant improvement on Joseph Woll’s 0.880 SV% as the Marlies’ starter last season, and better than Andrew D’Agostini’s 0.892 as their surprise starter this year. He can join forces with both netminders now and give the team some stability between the pipes, as they all figure out who they are moving forward. If it works out, great. If not, his current contract expires at the end of this year and they could walk away from his rights and free up a contract spot.
When push comes to shove, this is a low risk, unpredictable reward move for the Maple Leafs. It’s less than optimists would say they’d hoped for Lehtonen going in, but if you’re not going to win big with your lottery ticket, you may as well take advantage of the free replay when it’s handed to you.