Pictured—Mikko Lehtonen celebrates a goal as a member of Jokerit in the KHL during the 2019-20 season (Original Photo—Juuso Pellava)
Pictured—Nikita Zaitsev representing Team Russia (Original Photo—Yahoo! Canada Sports)
Pictured—Igor Ozhiganov in action during his lone season as a Maple Leaf (Original Photo—Last Word on Hockey)
At this point, we've addressed 2016 (Zaitsev), 2018 (Ozhiganov), 2019 (no undrafted European defenceman), and 2020 (Lehtonen) leaving 2017 as the sole year to dissect. On May 16th, 2017 (exactly one year and one day before the Ozhiganov signing), the Leafs signed a pair of left-handed defenceman from Sweden's top league (the SHL) to two-year, entry-levels deals—Andreas Borgman and Calle Rosén.
Borgman came into the fold as a very hot commodity. He had played 45 games with HV71 the previous season as a 21-year-old recording five goals and 15 points en route to rookie-of-the-year honours and the league championship. A lot of accomplished players have won the SHL ROY award in the past including Victor Hedman, Henrik Zetterberg, and Toronto's own Andreas Johnsson and that of course only added to the hype.
Rosén's arrival came with considerably less fanfare as the 23-year-old was older and not as flashy. With that being said, he had still registered solid numbers with Växjö the previous season racking up six goals and 20 points over 41 games with just 10 penalty minutes. He only ended up playing 8 total games with the Leafs over the next two seasons (as he mostly played with the Marlies) before being apart of a massive blockbuster trade between Toronto and Colorado on July 1st 2019.
Calle is still in the organization to this day as Toronto re-acquired him from the Avalanche in exchange for goaltender Michael Hutchinson on February 24th, 2020 (Trade Deadline Day). The player so nice, they acquired him twice.
Despite the excitement surrounding Borgman, he was traded just over three weeks after Rosén on July 25th, 2019 to the St. Louis Blues for 26-year-old Jordan Schmaltz. Schmaltz is a former first-round pick (25th overall in 2012) who stands at 6'2 and, more importantly, he shoots right. It would seem as though he checks all the boxes, but unfortunately he's a bit slow and inconsistent.
Advanced statistics don't favour him either. He played a career-high 20 games for the Blues during the 2018-19 season and registered just two assists while sporting an abysmal 42.4 CF% despite an oZS% of 57.8. In his defence (get it), all of these games were played while St. Louis was a bottom feeder aka before their miraculous 2019 reset that saw them go from last place to a Stanley Cup.
Despite the relatively small sample size, those numbers are just flat-out bad and his play style didn't fare much better in the Leafs'/Marlies' uptempo system before he was dealt to the New York Islanders at the 2019 Trade Deadline. Alternatively, Borgman had played reasonably well during a 48-game sample size in the 2017-18 season recording three goals and 11 points with a so-so 50.4 CF% while starting 56% of his shifts in the offensive zone.
So, what do all of these defenceman have in common?
Well, they all had their moments by showing promise at times; however, none of them have managed to stick with the organization long-term (except for Rosén who has boomeranged his way back into the mix).
On the bright side, Lehtonen is slightly different than all of his predecessors for positive reasons. He's the oldest of the bunch and many hope the maturity of his game will reflect that. He's the most decorated in terms of personal accolades and his offensive numbers in the KHL last season are far beyond those of any of the aforementioned defenceman as well.
Evaluating a player's ability to make a smooth transition from the KHL to the NHL is always a tricky process, but the multitude of assets he brings to the table certainly breed optimism. Like everything else in life right now, we'll just have to wait and see.