Canadiens Would Benefit From Trading Artturi Lehkonen

The Montreal Canadiens season is now no longer about competing for a playoff position, it is about simply being competitive. In the week of Jan. 17-23, 2022, the Habs played four road games, earning a record of 1-1-2, which may have been their best week of the entire season. They played a more competitive style of hockey, however, the question of if even that low bar of simply playing competitive hockey will be met for the remainder of the season as they are clearly on the path to earning a lottery pick.

Lehkonen On the Block

As the season continues, many Canadiens players will be showcased in the hopes of gaining more interest from rival teams and maximizing their trade values. One player, however, doesn’t need much to showcase him as forward Artturi Lehkonen is already expected to draw interest. 

Artturi Lehkonen Montreal Canadiens-Canadiens Would Benefit From Trading Artturi Lehkonen
Artturi Lehkonen, Montreal Canadiens (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Lehkonen is currently playing on a one-year, $2.3 million contract and will become a restricted free agent (RFA) this summer. This leaves a year of team control with the player having arbitration eligibility with a qualifying offer of $2.3 million (which the player doesn’t have to sign, and would retain his RFA status for the parent club), matching his current cap hit and salary. While it isn’t a guarantee that he’ll be moved by the March 21, 2022 trade deadline, there could be an offer that general manager Kent Hughes simply cannot ignore. 

Lehkonen’s defensive skills have made him a highly valuable player. His expected goals for (xGF) of 59.67% leads the Habs and shows that he has stuck to his style and performed consistently despite the terrible season Montreal has suffered through. As a restricted free agent, the club retains control for one more season. Add that to the value he provides as a third liner that can play a shutdown role and add value on the penalty kill.

Lehkonen Trade Value

His role as a defensive winger will be hard to replace, but with the growth in Jake Evans and Ryan Poehling’s two-way games at center, is it essential? No. While Lehkonen helps the Canadiens roster, with wingers such as Jesse Ylonen and Raphael Harvey-Pinard showing they are NHL capable, the depth is there for Hughes to not be concerned with replacing a third-line winger on his roster in the short term.

However, on a team that needs an upgrade of their penalty-killing (PK) units and an overall upgrade to their forward group, Lehkonen would be an excellent choice. He is a low-maintenance player in that you know what to expect from him every shift. But have contending teams paid a price for this type of player in the past that would suggest Hughes would get a good enough return to entertain the thought of trading someone the Canadiens drafted and developed? 

Looking at similar players moving at the last two Stanley Cup seasons for the repeat champion Tampa Bay Lightning, GM Julien Brisebois used first-round picks and prospects to build his third line into one that made a difference when it counted, in the playoffs. He acquired Blake Coleman from the New Jersey Devils for Nolan Foote (Tampa’s 2019 first-round pick) and the 2020 Vancouver Canucks 1st round pick from the JT Miller trade.

Nolan Foote Binghamton Devils-Canadiens Would Benefit From Trading Artturi Lehkonen
Nolan Foote, Binghamton Devils (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Also, he used Tampa’s own 2020 first-round pick and undrafted defenseman, Anthony Greco, to the San Jose Sharks for Barclay Goodrow. If Hughes is offered a first and/or a high-end prospect, he is likely to make that trade.

Related: Hughes’ First Steps Will Lay Foundation to his Legacy

New York Rangers Interested

The New York Rangers are already reported to have an interest in Lehkonen. They have been searching to improve on their bottom-six group, with the season-ending injury to Sammy Blais, that would make sense.  

Arthur Staple of The Athletic reports:

“…sources told the Athletic that Drury and his former boss, Canadiens operations chief Jeff Gorton, have been in contact regarding Lehkonen. The talks are believed to be preliminary”

-Arthur Staple (How to fix the Rangers’ forward group: Internal solutions, plus trade targets for the top 6, third line, and fourth line, Arthur Staple, the Athletic, 13 Jan 2022)

The Rangers do hold their own 2022 first-round pick, which holds value as the draft is to be held in Montreal this summer. Also, GM Chris Drury has a stable of prospects that could be of interest to Hughes and Canadiens executive vice president Jeff Gorton, who was the previous Rangers GM. However, the Rangers have reportedly placed an offer with Arizona for the services of Jacob Chychrun.

If that deal were to occur, it could take away an asset that Hughes would identify as necessary to accept trading Lehkonen to the Rangers.

A Dark Horse Fit for Lehkonen

Tampa Bay is a team in a battle for first place in the Atlantic Division with their state rival Florida Panthers. For the Lightning, scoring isn’t an issue as they sit third in the NHL with 147 goals in 43 games, giving them a 3.42 goals per game average. However, defense is an issue as they sit 18th in goals allowed with 120. Their PK also needs improvement as it is near the middle of the league, at 13th overall, with a success rate of  81.1%.

That should point to Brisebois more than likely looking to upgrade his team defensively, and with a blueline that has a very good top four, the larger impact to his club is for him to focus on an area that he has had great success in doing so in the past, his third-line forwards, which points to someone like Lehkonen being a fit much like Barclay Goodrow had been. 

Barclay Goodrow Tampa Bay Lightning-Canadiens Would Benefit From Trading Artturi Lehkonen
Barclay Goodrow, Tampa Bay Lightning (Photo by Scott Audette /NHLI via Getty Images)

He would instantly improve their bottom-six and bring some of the same style to the third line that led them to two consecutive Stanley Cups. Brisebois still has his core group to build upon and he has a history of adding in the forechecking and puck retrieval style players that compliment them. Also, Lehkonen’s defensive skills would instantly improve their PK unit. Adding him to their lineup would also greatly improve their overall forward depth. But, Tampa Bay is against the salary cap and would need to move out the same amount of money that they bring in. The Canadiens could help by retaining 50% of Lehkonen’s contract for the season, meaning TB would need to find $1.15 million to either trade to Montreal or waive off the roster, which could impact the value of any trade return.

As the trade deadline approaches, Hughes will need to start making decisions on who he is willing to trade out of Montreal and who fits his vision as a fast-paced possession player. At 26 years old, will Lehkonen be able to remain effective when the team is nearing that vision of Cup contention? Maybe not, and, with several players coming up that can step into NHL roles, if Hughes can get the return for Lehkonen that can help improve on the prospect pool, he should make that trade and allow Lehkonen an opportunity to earn a larger contract as a free agent while playing on a contender.

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