The Toronto Maple Leafs have landed one of the most talented and intriguing prospects from the European free-agent pool, signing Finland’s Mikko Lehtonen to a one-year entry-level contract that carries with it only minimal risk.
One problem: he shoots left and plays defence.
Lehtonen, who made an incredibly successful leap from Sweden’s top division to the KHL at the beginning of last season, will step into the most densely-populated region within the Leafs depth chart while trying to make the same-sized step forward for his career in 2020-21.
With Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin cemented as the top two options on the left side, Lehtonen’s addition theoretically leaves one spot open for three candidates — the other two being roster-ready contributors and recent top draft selections of the organization, Travis Dermott and Rasmus Sandin.
While it’s no guarantee that Lehtonen is a surefire difference-maker at the NHL level or serious competition for Dermott and Sandin, nothing from last season in Russia should suggest otherwise. Jokerit’s leading scorer and quarterback on the power play, Lehtonen scored 17 goals and added 32 assists in 58 games to lead all KHL defencemen in scoring and finish sixth among all skaters. He had six more goals and 29 more points than Toronto’s other notable European add and another highly-sought import this summer, former SKA forward Alexander Barabanov.
Lehtonen was a force in his KHL debut season and had one more year on his contract, but Jokerit agreed Friday to terminate the remaining term to allow him to pursue NHL opportunities.
Naturally, there were no shortage of suitors in what wound up being just a weekend courtship for Lehtonen, so it seems unlikely that a late-blooming 26-year-old defenceman that had the freedom to select the best possible destination would hastily choose an NHL club that just didn’t have the space for him in their lineup.
So what does this mean for Dermott and Sandin?
For now, it means the competition for the that third slot is no longer between just each other. But in any case, though, assuming both remain with the organization through the summer, the expectation likely was that either Dermott or Sandin would have to shift to the right side in order for the Leafs to optimize their lineup. Now it just seems certain that one will have to make the transition to their off-hand.
Still, even that wouldn’t sort out the situation completely.
Sandin is without options now that the first year on his entry-level contract was burned in what was, in more ways than one, an incomplete rookie season. It’s imperative that the Leafs extract the remaining value from his contract while it’s priced at less than $1 million or they risk completely mismanaging one of the few high-quality prospects in the system.
Dermott, meanwhile, will bargain for the first time this summer in restricted free agency. On the heels of a disappointing season, Dermott’s leverage is not what it could have been, but he will command much more than either Sandin or Lehtonen is slated to earn regardless. There’s a possibility that Dermott morphs into something far too expensive for the Leafs, who already have to make serious changes in order to stay cap compliant.
It wouldn’t be because of the Lehtonen add that the Leafs decide they might have to move on from Dermott, but it might be a preemptive move, and one made in response to what’s already in store this summer.
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