Comparing Lehtonen to previously-acquired European blueliners
By Luke Garrison Saturday May 9th, 2020
Pictured—Mikko Lehtonen celebrates a goal as a member of Jokerit in the KHL during the 2019-20 season (Original Photo—Juuso Pellava)
DISCLAIMER: This article contains references to advanced stats including Corsi (CF%) and zone starts (oZS% and dZS%). If you don't fully understand these terms, please visit this page for a full explanation.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have signed at least one undrafted European defenceman almost every year since 2016.
Last year was an exception to the trend as the Leafs' brass decided to focus on signing Ilya Mikheyev among other things, but they made up for it in 2020 by doubling down—locking up two KHL standouts in Alexander Barabanov and Mikko Lehtonen.
The Barabanov news came first as the Buds locked him up to a one-year, entry-level contract on April 7th. Leafs Nation at least somewhat buzzing, especially given the fact that this signing meant something new to talk about for a hockey-starved city in the midst of a pandemic.
But, he's a forward. A small winger with skill to be exact. The deal would be a lot more exciting if it featured a player that, say, filled a greater positional need. Any idea what role I might be referring to?
Fast-forward to May the 4th, a day when the blue-and-white faithful were treated to the signing of potential back-end Jedi Mikko Lehtonen (I couldn't resist). Toronto did use 'the force' to sign Lehtonen and that 'force' is none other than their Senior Director of Player Evaluation—Jim Paliafito.
In fact, the personal relationships Paliafito develops overseas with potential imports are absolutely essential to the Leafs' European recruitment process and have been since 2015. The success he had in bringing over multiple players including Nikita Zaitsev, Andreas Borgman, and Calle Rosén was a large part of the reason he was promoted from Junior Director in 2018.
Lehtonen was Jim's latest conquest and once again, mission accomplished. Due to his efforts, Mikko selected the Leafs over a multitude of other interested NHL teams and comes with a pedigree to boot. He was widely considered to be the best defenceman in Europe this season (at 26 years old) and led all KHL rearguards in scoring with an eye-popping 17 goals and 49 points.
Additionally, Lehtonen has impressed on the international stage by representing Team Finland at various tournaments including the World Championships (in 2017 and 2019) and the 2018 Olympics. He isn't an overly large defender standing at approximately 6-feet, 200 pounds; however, he has a plethora of experience playing the right side despite being a left shot.
The question is, do Mikko's accolades make him unique? Or will he just end up being another failed European RHD experiment ala Igor Ozhiganov? Let's see how the numbers stack up against other blue line imports of seasons past.
Pictured—Nikita Zaitsev representing Team Russia (Original Photo—Yahoo! Canada Sports)
We'll begin our reminiscence with Nikita Zaitsev. The right-handed rearguard came to the Leafs as a 24-year-old (two years younger than Lehtonen) back in 2016 and expectations were certainly high. Toronto had just as much of a need for right-handed defencemen then as they do now, and Zaitsev seemed to fit the bill.
In addition to shooting right, Nikita had amassed eight goals and 26 points throughout 46 games for CSKA Moscow in the KHL during the previous season. He was a KHL All-Star in both 2014 and 2015, not to mention a member of Team Russia during the 2016 IIHF World Championship. What could go wrong?
During his rookie year in the NHL, not much. He put up 4 goals and 36 points over a full 82-game season with a near-even CF% (49.4) while starting 55.2% of his shifts in the defensive zone. Many thought he would provide the Leafs with a long-term answer on the right side.
That group of hopefuls included Lou Lamoriello, the Buds' General Manager at the time, who promptly signed him to a lucrative contract extension worth $31.5 million over seven years ($4.5 million AAV).
Unfortunately, the deal ended up being a huge mistake. Zaitsev had a down year the next season recording just 5 goals and 13 points through 60 games; however, he did only get into 60 games due to a foot injury and sophomore slumps exist so management wasn't ready to jump ship just yet.
The following season, he threw up another dud achieving just three goals and 14 points through 81 games and the Leafs had seen enough. On July 1st 2019, Zaitsev was dealt to the Ottawa Senators as apart of a six-player trade and the rest is history. Just like that.
Now, let's rewind just over a year back to May 17th, 2018. Toronto opts to sign a second right-handed defenceman out of the KHL to a one-year, entry-level deal—Igor Ozhiganov. He was 25 years old at the time; therefore, a year older than Zaitsev and a year younger than Lehtonen when they signed their tickets. Igor wasn't known for his offensive prowess like Nikita or Mikko, but he did score eight goals during the 2016-17 season.
The one weapon he was known for was his shot. During the aforementioned 2016-17 campaign, he was a KHL All-Star and won the hardest shot contest with a clapper clocking in around 99 miles per hour. Various NHL teams were interested, but Paliafito worked his magic once again and Igor ended up in the blue-and-white.
Unfortunately, the end result was very disappointing. Earlier in this article, I referred to Ozhiganov as 'another failed European RHD experiment' and you're about to find out why. Over the course of 53 games, Igor posted just 3 goals and 7 points while frequently finding himself in the press box.
Perhaps I'm being a little harsh as his 54.1 CF% was a pretty solid achievement considering he was a rookie defenceman, but 34 giveaways in 53 games is abysmal and he rarely passed the eye test which is what led to the frequent press-boxing in the first place.
Two experiments yielded zero long-term solutions at right defence. Yikes.
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.