Keefe Changes His Mind: Maple Leafs’ Lehtonen Ready for Prime Time

When the Toronto Maple Leafs signed Mikko Lehtonen, the KHL’s leading defenseman for the 2019-20 season, the reaction of fans was two-fold. On one hand, many Maple Leafs fans – including myself – felt this was a great signing. The team was picking up perhaps the best defenseman in the world NOT playing in the NHL on a bargain contract.

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On the other hand, some fans were more skeptical: they noted that other European defensemen had come to the NHL with great KHL pedigree – including former Maple Leafs Nikita Zaitsev – and many of these players had a tough time adjusting to the NHL game.

Lehtonen Didn’t Impress Enough Out of Training Camp

It looked as if the second group of skeptics might have been correct. Towards the end of the Maple Leafs training camp, head coach Sheldon Keefe noted that Lehtonen wasn’t quite ready for a regular role on the Maple Leafs defense. It was going to take him a little more time to get acclimated to the NHL game played on a smaller ice surface.

In the meantime, the organization wasn’t going to rush him into situations where he was over his head. KHL Defenseman of the Year or not, Lehtonen wasn’t quite ready for primetime with the Maple Leafs.

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In Lehtonen’s place, Keefe bumped Travis Dermott into the third-pairing of the team’s defenseman with Zach Bogosian. For the time being, Lehtonen landed in the press box to watch a bit longer.

Keefe’s Logic for Holding Lehtonen Out of the Line-up

Obviously, Keefe never believed Lehtonen was a bust. However, his demotion did mean that, similar to many other European defensemen, it might take him more time to adapt to the smaller NHL ice surfaces and the way North American hockey was played. If he were going to become an effective part of the team’s future, the Finnish defenseman needed more time and practice. As Keefe alluded to Lehtonen’s problems, that was more question of practice and experience than it was of skill.

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When asked what he was thinking in holding Lehtonen out, Keefe and the coaching staff responded that they had watched Lehtonen’s progress throughout the training camp. Given what they had seen and their own collective history of experiences with similar European defensive transfers, they decided that it would help Lentonen adjust more successfully if he had more time to watch before being inserted into a full-time shift.

Keefe Really Likes Lehtonen and Has Created Space

Although at the time, it might have seemed like a setback for Lehtonen, obviously the Maple Leafs hadn’t given up on Lehtonen as a player. In fact, there were things the organization really liked about him – especially his power-play potential. Keefe noted even after what seemed like an unsuccessful training camp that Lehtonen was already able to contribute to the teams’ play with the man advantage.

Apparently, coach Keefe now wants Lehtonen to get his feet wet. During Monday evening’s 3-1 win over the Winnipeg Jets, Keefe employed an untypical lineup by dressing seven defensemen – including Lehtonen – and 11 forwards instead of the more usual six defensemen and 12 forwards.

One reason for that deployment was it offered Keefe a chance to give Lehtonen some playing time. In fact, Lehtonen made his NHL debut and logged 6:41 minutes on the ice during that game.

Keefe Will Continue to Keep Lehtonen in the Lineup

On Tuesday, coach Keefe spoke to the media following practice. When asked if he would return to the more traditional six defensemen and 12 forwards, he responded in the negative. In fact, he shared that the team would be sticking with seven defensemen and would hope that Lehtonen could get more game action.

Other than time on the ice, Lehtonen didn’t make the score sheet during his first NHL game with the Maple Leafs. That’s no surprise because he didn’t get much of an opportunity to play many minutes. Of his 6:41 minutes, he played just over 30 seconds on the power play.

His NHL debut wasn’t that impactful; however, the fact that the organization wanted him in the lineup was an indication that Keefe had decided the time was right to see what he had to offer during regular-season play.

Keefe Admits It’s About Lehtonen’s Playing Time

In the video below, Keefe’s Tuesday interview contains his announcement that the team wouldn’t return to the six defensemen and 12 forwards they usually play. Instead, he would stick with the roster of seven defensemen and 11 forwards. Mostly, as Keefe noted, he wanted to give Lehtonen more chances to get game action.

Keefe Has Liked His New Lineup – So Far

During the interview, Keefe noted that he liked many things about the game against the Jets – including how the 11 forwards flowed. However, he lamented how difficult it was to give Lehtonen more reps because the team had only one power play. Keefe thought the lack of time with the man advantage made it even harder to get him on the ice and give him some minutes.

Still, the interview clarified that one goal the organization had was wanting to “keep giving him (Lehtonen) that opportunity” to play. Keefe had decided that, although there were things about the lineup that were not great, the positives are enough to continue the plan – especially when coupled with the fact that it had the potential to “allow us to get Mikko involved.”

What to Look Forward to with Lehtonen

Maple Leafs fans should look forward to seeing what Lehtonen can do against another highly-offensive team that comes to town tonight – the Edmonton Oilers. There’s a likelihood Lehtonen will have more opportunity for power-play minutes.

As well, it will be interesting to see how well he’s adapted – so far – to the game. The game’s always more interesting with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in town.

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Lehtonen is undoubtedly not fully comfortable yet, but Keefe has obviously come to believe that he should be given a chance to show that he’s part of the solution.

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