On May 4, 2020, the Toronto Maple Leafs dipped their feet into the international free agent pool and made arguably their biggest signing since the failed experiment of Jonas “The Monster” Gustavsson. Fresh off of a career year with Jokerit of the KHL, the Leafs signed defenseman Mikko Lehtonen to a one-year entry-level contract.
In 2019-20, Lehtonen collected 49 points through 60 games, enough to earn him KHL defenseman of the year honours. Most European signings are a crapshoot. For every Artemi Panarin, there’s an Igor Ozhiganov. Lehtonen had blossomed into a bona fide power play quarterback and registered only 13 fewer points than Panarin had in his final KHL season before signing with the Chicago Blackhawks. For a defenseman, this seemed like a home run signing at the time.
Lehtonen’s Lack of Opportunity in Toronto
Like many other fans, I was excited to see what Lehtonen could bring to the Maple Leafs. He impressed in the few scrimmage opportunities he had before the 2020-21 season began, and he looked as though he could play second fiddle to Morgan Rielly on the second power-play unit.
But Lehtonen had some early struggles adjusting to the smaller North American ice, and while head coach Sheldon Keefe wanted to give him a fair chance, they were also committed to giving defenseman Travis Dermott an opportunity to claim his spot on the bottom pairing.
With that, along with the surprise emergence of Zach Bogosian as a reliable, stay-at-home defenseman, Lehtonen simply couldn’t find a way to stay in the lineup. He wasn’t getting a lot of playing time, and thus, he wasn’t really put in a position where he could improve as a player.
So on March 12, 2021, the Leafs traded Lehtonen to the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for goaltender Veini Vehvilainen. The Finnish netminder had spent the start of the 2020-21 season back home in Finland with JYP of the SM-Liiga prior to the NHL season and has since appeared in one game for the Blue Jackets and one game for the AHL’s Cleveland Monsters.
So what should you expect out of Vehvilainen? Let’s take a look at the newest Leaf and see what the Buds are getting in him.
Veini Vehvilainen’s Road to Toronto
Vehvilainen was drafted in the sixth round of the 2018 NHL Draft at 173rd overall. Born in 1997, that year would have been his last of draft eligibility. He was coming off of a strong season with Oulun Karpat of the SM-Liiga that saw him put together a record of 20-5-8 to go along with a goals-against average (GAA) of 1.89 and a save percentage (SV%) of .925.
The Jyvaskyla native improved, even more, the following year, posting a record of 25-8-5 with a GAA of 1.58 and a SV% of .933 in 2018-19. He was outstanding for Karpat in the playoffs as well, carrying a GAA of 1.47 with a SV% of .939 to go with it. He had also posted similar numbers in the playoffs the year before, with a GAA of 1.57 and a SV% of .933.
Prior to the 2019-20 season, the Blue Jackets felt it was time to bring the Finn across the pond and give him a shot in the AHL. He had a few struggles in his rookie season, but his numbers were decent overall. He finished with a record of 10-18-5 with a GAA of 2.76 and a SV% of .901. Considering the Monsters finished last in the North Division last season, these numbers aren’t the worst.
With the 2020-21 NHL season on hold at the time, Vehvilainen headed back to his home country of Finland to suit up for JYP. That’s the team that he had developed with growing up and spent every season with apart from his draft year and his draft-plus-1 season, where he played for Karpat. But upon joining a struggling JYP team, his numbers took a hit as well. He spent 13 games with the team and put together a record of 3-7-3 with a GAA of 3.18 and a SV% of .896.
Since the trade happened roughly two weeks ago, it would appear that his quarantine is just about over, and he should be getting some looks with the Marlies at some point. With Frederik Andersen’s status up in the air, he could even see some time as the Leafs’ third goalie, depending on how long Andersen needs to get back to 100 percent.
Given the fact that Vehvilainen just turned 24 years old and he’s already seen lots of success over in Europe, I would call him the Leafs’ best goalie prospect as it stands. He’s easily the most experienced of the crop that includes Joseph Woll, Ian Scott, and Artur Akhtyamov, and considering the uncertainty around Andersen’s future in Toronto, we could possibly see Vehvilainen get some regular looks in the NHL come next season.
He’s on the smaller side at six feet tall and 181 pounds, but he plays bigger than what his size would indicate, and he also has good rebound control. He’s technically sound and plays a relatively calm game, which is an asset that goes a long way for goalies. Like I said earlier, international prospects are quite often a crapshoot, so whether or not Vehvilainen will be an NHL goalie someday is unknown.
But given his pro experience and his age, I would think he leapfrogs Woll, Scott, and Akhtyamov on the depth chart. It will be interesting to see how the Leafs intend to handle Vehvilainen’s development and how they plan to utilize him going forward.
The Leafs’ future in the crease from here on out is foggy at best. With Andersen’s contract up at the end of the season and Jack Campbell’s lack of experience as a starting goalie despite his small sample size of success this season, I can’t imagine the Leafs will be comfortable giving Vehvilainen lots of responsibility into next season. But at the very least, I think they’ll give him a look to see what he’s made of.
In three years, this article might serve as a reminder of why taking a flyer on goaltending prospects is sometimes worth the reward. Or, it might be completely irrelevant by then, depending on what kind of success he sees in Toronto. But at the very least, it gives the Leafs another netminding option to work within the pipeline.
Alex Hobson is a third year broadcasting student at Niagara College. He has been writing about sports since 2005 and has been with The Hockey Writers since October of 2020. He covers the Toronto Maple Leafs, World Juniors, and the NHL Entry Draft, and is also part of the Maple Leafs Lounge Podcast, presented by THW. For interview requests or any other inquiries, you can follow Alex’s social media pages listed at the bottom of his articles like this one.