Sheldon Keefe’s Toronto Maple Leafs have endured a hectic start to the season. Injuries to Joe Thornton and Jack Campbell have forced Toronto to constantly shuffle their lines throughout January. Keefe, however, should make one more change: free Mikko Lehtonen.
Lehtonen’s place in Toronto has been under constant scrutiny since he unveiled as a Maple Leaf. With NHL training camps squeezed by the coronavirus, it was improbable that Lehtonen would prove his worth before Toronto’s season opener against the Canadiens.
Eight games and three appearances into the campaign, the Finn’s claim for minutes in the NHL has grown stronger. The Leafs should free Mikko Lehtonen and here’s why.
The Leafs Need to Free Mikko Lehtonen
The Dermott-Bogosian Pair
GM Kyle Dubas approached the offseason with a clear idea about the kind of players he wanted to recruit. Zach Bogosian, 30, offers ‘heart’ and joined the Leafs having just won the Stanley Cup with Tampa Bay. The American defenseman made 20 playoff appearances for the Lightning last term, averaging 17:40 on ice through the postseason.
Bogosian has been a mainstay for Keefe since arriving in Toronto, appearing in each of the Leafs’ eight opening games. Despite his rocky debut against Montreal, Bogosian has averaged 13:42 on ice so far this season.
For the most part, Bogosian has played alongside Travis Dermott. The 24-year-old defenseman has made seven appearances in 2021, averaging just over 11 minutes of ice time per game. The Dermott-Bogosian partnership is yet to register a point and has failed to inspire onlookers.
In plain terms, Keefe’s third pairing has been distinctly average. In fairness to Toronto, it has been a while since their bottom pair was mediocre – in that respect, Bogosian’s arrival has had the desired effect.
However, with the reigning KHL Defender of the Year sat in the press box, the should Leafs aim higher. The Lehtonen experiment could fail – but there are plenty of reasons why Keefe should take a chance on the 26-year-old Finn.
Roll the Dice
In his final 77 games in Europe, Lehtonen registered 66 points for Jokerit Helsinki. Before joining Toronto, he was arguably the best defenseman outside of the NHL. If Lehtonen isn’t allowed to fight for a place on the roster, what might future European free agents think about joining the Leafs?
The reputational argument aside, Lehtonen’s skill set seems to be a better fit for Toronto than what Bogosian has to offer. A creative, left-handed defenseman who can play on either side of the ice, Lehtonen has the credentials to make an impact for Toronto.
The Turku-born Maple Leaf registered 49 points (17 goals, 32 assists) during the 2019/20 season. He was also named back-to-back-to-back KHL Defenseman of the Month.
In his top six debut against Calgary, Lehtonen was a steady hand during his 13:03 of ice time. The Leafs, though, were outshot during his time on the ice and Lehtonen featured just once in the final frame.
With Keefe writing-off the 11F-7D set-up, Lehtonen’s task is to rise above Dermott in the depth chance. During training camp, Keefe said Toronto would take their time over the Finn.
“Certainly, on the power play, we feel he is ready to contribute there,” Keefe told reporters earlier this month. “We think there are other areas of his game that need a little bit more time, we don’t want to rush him into a situation that he is maybe not adjusted to here quite yet.
“We are going to take a step back with Mikko and give him more time to watch and get a feel for the league and allow him some more time to work on things in practice and make some adjustments there.”
Stick or Twist
If the Toronto Maple Leafs believe in their KHL recruit, they should free Mikko Lehtonen. Taking a chance on Lehtonen would make good on the organisation’s promises to him and it would also potentially improve Toronto’s third pair.
If the Lehtonen fails in North America, the Leafs lose nothing. If he succeeds, Toronto benefit hugely. The case for handing Lehtonen a spot in the Leaf’s top six is clear, the question is whether Keefe is willing to roll the dice during a 56-game season.
Take a chance, Coach Keefe