With the NHL season still on hold, we decided to open up on discussions surrounding the Toronto Maple Leafs. Along with fellow writer Peter Baracchini, we’ll go back and forth on signings, trades and other aspects of the game when it comes to the blue and white as we banter both sides of each storyline.
With that, the Maple Leafs recently dipped their hands into the international free agent pool and signed stud defenceman Mikko Lehtonen who has shown talent on both sides of the puck during his European career.
While defensive coverage has been a question mark at times for the Maple Leafs over the past few seasons, this week, we’ll discuss whether it was the right move for the Maple Leafs from an organizational standpoint.
Baracchini: Lehtonen Adds Positivity, Depth
Even though the Maple Leafs signed Alexander Barabanov, they didn’t stop there. The team also landed the top European free agent and best defenceman on the market in Mikko Lehtonen.
The numbers for Lehtonen jump out immediately, scoring 17 goals and registering 49 points, leading Jokerit Helsinki in scoring as well as the league amongst defensemen. He was a big minute player, earning just over 22 minutes a game as well as playing 25 shifts per game. General manager Kyle Dubas said that he wants Lehtonen to play to his strengths. He’s an excellent puck mover, with an ability to play a two-way game, which is something the team lacked all season.
While these are great positives to look at, many will say the signing isn’t great due to the fact that he’s a left-handed shot. The Maple Leafs currently have lots of players on the left hand side, with Justin Holl being the one right-shot defenceman the team has. However, this could be a problem that can be turned into a positive for the Maple Leafs as the organizational depth that this team has is now a major bonus. As we saw this year with the depleted blueline due to injuries, it can never hurt to have more options, whether they play on the left or right side.
Despite the abundance of left-hand shots, Lehtonen is capable of playing on right side if he needs to. With Cody Ceci and Tyson Barrie most likely hitting the free-agent market, a few spots have opened up. Along with Lehtonen, Travis Dermott has shown that he’s able to play on the right side as well. This gives the Maple Leafs options in terms of projecting the blueline, pending what happens during the offseason. In addition, if things don’t work out, Dermott could be expendable in a deal and traded for another steady right-hand defenceman or other assets.
The Maple Leafs have shown that they aren’t afraid to dip into the European free-agent market. They seemed to have found success with Ilya Mikheyev last season and they’re looking to find the same diamond in the rough with the best defenceman outside of the NHL.
Forbes: Void Remains With or Without Lehtonen
To say that anyone saw this coming – Lehtonen signing with the Maple Leafs – would be wrong. There was talk that he was set to come to the NHL and there was a lot of interest, but not much linking the player to this particular team.
I’d be wrong to suggest that the low-risk contract isn’t exactly what the Maple Leafs need at this point in time, but with this signing comes so many more questions.
What happens to Barrie? What happens to Ceci? Do the Maple Leafs really need another left-handed defenceman? And how will Lehtonen transition to the NHL?
Chances are we’re going to see Barrie walk. We might see Ceci walk and if the Maple Leafs really wanted a right-shot defenceman, they will likely have to make a move to acquire one – either through trade or free agency. But with Lehtonen on the team, that closes the door slightly on the Maple Leafs making a big move when free agency opens and that’s with a number of stud NHL defensemen on the market.
Alex Pietrangelo. Torey Krug. Travis Hamonic. T.J. Brodie. Those among a second tier of free agent defensemen leaves more questions for the Maple Leafs than answers. What they lacked last year was defensive zone coverage. They played without responsibility in their own end and that was magnified with the injuries they suffered on their back end.
Say what you will about Morgan Rielly, he’s a solid offensive, puck-moving defenceman, but he doesn’t equate to a physical presence in his own end and that’s what the Maple Leafs need. Could Lehtonen play that role? Sure.
He isn’t a liability in his own end, and has the offensive skill to go along with that, but will that same type of play transition to a top-four role with in the NHL?
Let’s not get this wrong. In no way am I saying that it’s the worst idea to sign Lehtonen. In fact, having depth on the back end is beneficial in so many ways. I’m just questioning if he’s exactly what the team needs on the blue line right now. Or should they have focused more on filling the physical, responsible role on the back end?
Either way you look at it, the Lehtonen signing is low-risk. If needed, could the Maple Leafs still find another option to add more strength to the backend? Absolutely. Just because they signed Lehtonen doesn’t mean they’re done adding pieces. Nor does it mean that he’s a lock to crack the NHL roster. But with the hype that surrounded him – and the skill that he showcased in Europe – the expectation should be that he’s with the big club when next season gets underway.
Has this signing brought excitement to the Maple Leafs during a time of uncertainty? You bet. But has it solved the Maple Leafs problems on the back end? There’s no guarantee until we see what he brings to the table in the NHL and under the pressure of playing in a fishbowl city like Toronto.
What are your thoughts on the Maple Leafs signing Mikko Lehtonen?
Andrew is in his 8th year reporting for The Hockey Writers covering the Toronto Maple Leafs. He began his broadcasting with CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada team as well as being part of their coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. He’s the former play-by-play voice of the London Jr. Knights for Rogers TV and currently hosts the Sticks in the 6ix podcast. You can follow him on Twitter at @AndrewGForbes.