Canadiens Must Make Tough Decision Regarding Lehkonen’s Future

The NHL trade deadline is around three weeks away, and with the Montreal Canadians hovering around the bottom of the standings, a few players are rumoured to be on the move. The most likely player moved is pending free agent (FA) Ben Chiarot, along with a few other pending FAs on the roster. Another player that is not an FA this summer has also been heavily rumoured to be on the move, and that’s Habs forward Artturi Lehkonen. The Canadiens will have to consider every possibility before moving on from the upcoming restricted free agent (RFA).

Canadiens Lehkonen Is a Top Defensive Forward

Lehkonen will probably be remembered for his goal against the Vegas Golden Knights to send the Canadiens to the Stanley Cup Final. In some Canadiens fans’ minds, he will also be known for his missed opportunities and lack of finish. This lack of finish has been an issue that has plagued his young career, especially after he scored 18 goals in his rookie season. Many thought he would be an annual 20-goal scorer, but that has not been the case. So why is he highly touted as this season’s trade deadline approaches? That’s an easy answer: it’s his defensive play.

Artturi Lehkonen Montreal Canadiens
Artturi Lehkonen, Montreal Canadiens (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Lehkonen was part of the Canadiens’ defensive regime during their Stanley Cup Final run last season. He helped the Habs keep the high-scoring offence of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Winnipeg Jets and Vegas Golden Knights down to a minimum and was an essential part of the penalty kill (PK), which killed 32 penalties in a row over 13 games in the playoffs. He has speed and grit and isn’t afraid to go in the corners; he’s a perfect playoff performer, considering how the game changes to a more defensive focus.

Canadiens Lehkonen Gaining Interest From Other Teams

Lehkonen’s defensive solid play is piquing the interests of teams around the NHL, especially ones who want to make a strong Cup run. One of the most notable teams interested in Lehkonen is the New York Rangers. The Rangers have inquired about Lehkonen several times this season, especially after Sammy Blais went down with an injury. New York looks at Lehkonen not only as a replacement for Blais but also as an upgrade on their third line.

Related: Montreal Canadiens Trade Deadline History

Media members have been saying that Lehkonen is this year’s version of Blake Coleman, who was picked up by the Tampa Lightning for their Stanley Cup-winning run in 2020. Coleman was traded for a first-round pick and prospect Nolan Foote, who was drafted 27th overall in the 2019 draft. Lehkonen is the same type of player as Coleman and puts up similar offensive numbers. If Coleman can get two first-round picks, then Lehkonen should be able to fetch a similar package from a contending team. Canadiens general manager Kent Hughes has stated he is not actively looking to trade Lehkonen, but he is taking calls. With Lehkonen having a career year and on pace for 20 goals and 43 points – both career highs — the phone calls are getting more frequent.

Lehkonen’s Next Contract Could Be an Issue for the Canadiens

Lehkonen is an RFA at the end of the season and could get over $3 million at arbitration. Currently, he makes $2.3 million, but there is an argument to make that he could reach as high as $4 million annually on his next contract. In seeing his value, you need to compare him to other players in the league who play a similar game. He’s at best a third-line fringe 20-goal scorer who will play a substantial defensive role and work at 110 percent game in and game out.

Looking at players with the same type of status and work ethic, you can again bring up Coleman, who makes $4.9 million to play a third-line role and is a fringe 20-goal scorer at 30 years of age. Barclay Goodrow is another player similar to Lehkonen; he’s 29 and is a fringe 15-goal scorer who makes $3.6 million to play in the bottom-six for the Rangers. You could also use teammate Joel Armia’s contract as an example. At 28, he makes $3.4 million to play the bottom-six.

Joel Armia Montreal Canadiens
Joel Armia, Montreal Canadiens (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Lehkonen, who will be 27 to start next season, is having a career year and is the top defensive forward on the Canadiens holds all the cards in next season’s contract negotiations. The Habs have some control over him since he’s an RFA, but he could easily get a one-year contract of $3 million through arbitration next season. This would allow him to become an unrestricted free agent (UFA) the following season, and Montreal could lose him for nothing. If the team negotiates a deal, he could ask for as high as $4 million based on other players’ contracts, which is not an unrealistic ask.

This would put the Canadiens in a bind due to the cap hits of other bottom-six players like Armia and Paul Byron, who make $3.4 million. They also have several high contracts throughout the lineup; if they want to make a splash in free agency and try to sign a star player, giving a bottom-six player $4 million isn’t the way to do it.

Canadiens Price for Moving Lehkonen Should Be High

Hughes doesn’t sound like a guy who wants to trade Lehkonen in his interviews. He also said he wasn’t revealing any trade deadline strategy in those interviews, but if he’s listening to offers, he’s bound to get one he likes. Money will be the biggest issue with re-signing Lehkonen, and if they can do it for a team-friendly long-term type deal, sign the dotted line. If Lehkonen plays hardball, however, maybe going to arbitration and paying whatever they award for a season is best, then trade him at next year’s deadline for assets. The issue there is will he have another career season or stay healthy? His value is at an all-time high – will it be the same at next season’s trade deadline?

Kent Hughes, Montreal Canadiens GM
Kent Hughes, Montreal Canadiens general manager (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

With the way, Lehkonen is playing this season, his work ethic, and defensive play, the Canadiens should sell very high on him. If a player like Coleman can get a first-round pick and a top prospect, the Habs should at least ask for no lower than that in a trade. If they are going to trade him at this deadline, then the offer would have to be an overpayment by whatever team wants him the most. If a first and a top prospect aren’t returning to the Canadiens in a trade, Hughes can say no and keep him.

Money is the only real sticking point when deciding to keep Lehkonen. If they go to arbitration and get around $3 million, they have options. Jonathan Drouin and Paul Byron will be off the books after next season, and they would have room to give Lehkonen a decent contract. Hughes, however, has already stated they would like to be aggressive and sign some star players in the offseason, which means high contracts to bottom-six players would be out of the question.

If the Canadiens get the right deal, then Lehkonen will be moved. If they don’t, he stays and hopefully, they can negotiate a team-friendly deal. I would put the odds at 60/40 that Lehkonen gets trade this deadline, his value is sky-high right now, and this is the time to get that overpayment the Habs are seeking.

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