While many fans continue to comb the league over for potential additions to the roster, Marc Bergevin seems to be in no hurry to add a player. This leads one to believe that although he still has nine million dollars left to make it to the cap ceiling, he is willing to enter the season with the roster as it stands. If this were to be the case, success would lean heavily on players currently on the roster taking significant steps forward. Who are those players most likely to accomplish this feat and keep the Canadiens in the conversation of teams that could make noise in the playoffs? The top candidate when thinking about potential breakout years on this team is none other than Artturi Lehkonen.
The 22-year-old left winger had a modest season in 2016-2017, scoring only 28 points while appearing in 73 games. Part of the offensive problem also had to do with his playing mates. Lehkonen spent the better part of his first 50 games in the league playing alongside Tomas Plekanec who had an atrocious offensive season to say the least. It’s hard for a rookie to produce when his veteran linemate is unable to hit the net or keep up with the speed of play. Blaming all the struggles on Plekanec would be disingenuous though since Lehkonen also had games playing next to Alexander Radulov and even Alex Galchenyuk. It will be interesting to see where he lines up this season. Seeing him play with Phillip Danault and Brendan Gallagher would make him the sniper on the line, and this would certainly be an intriguing line that would allow Pacioretty-Galchenyuk-Drouin to all play together. Other options include having Lehkonen playing next to any of the three players mentioned as the top line, all of which represent some interesting offensive possibility for the sophomore.
Back to the stats and Lehkonen’s 28 points in 73 games don’t truly tell the tale of this players’ season. While I’m not an enthusiastic fan of advanced stats, Lehkonen does represent a case where these numbers (Corsi, Possession, etc.) and the eye test tell a similar story; expect much bigger things from this player in seasons to come.
At the start of the season, Lehkonen appeared to be a step behind the pace of the game, an observation that should come as no surprise when discussing a player transitioning from the more defensive European style on the bigger ice surface. Although he was a step off the pace, he also seemed to always be in the right place on the ice. What was even more impressive is that his positioning and awareness was so good both offensively and defensively. How often is a rookie so solid defensively while still being able to make himself an offensive threat? Now if he could only find the timing on that trigger! So, while his numbers were mediocre at best through Christmas (nine points in 28 GP), the coaching staff never had to worry about giving him the chance to find his offensive touch since he was so responsible defensively.
After an ice-cold January where Lehkonen was blanked in 13 games, the second half of the season saw Lehkonen improve his offensive numbers dramatically. In fact, his 19 points in 32 GP to end the season meant that his numbers went from 0.22 ppg pre-All-Star break to 0.58 ppg post-All-Star break. A quick calculation here suggests that for the second half of the season, Lehkonen would have been on pace for a 50-point campaign, and while the jump from 28 to 50 is significant, there is even more evidence to back up the possibility that this was not a fluke.
When Claude Julien was hired on February 14th, 2017, many including myself thought this to be a great hire for the Canadiens. Artturi Lehkonen had to be a little frustrated. He had worked hard at making a good impression on the coaching staff to see his ice time increase to approximately 14 minutes per game, and now he’d have to start over with Julien. In what can only be described as the first sign of a united coaching staff, Lehkonen’s time on the ice stabilized at the 14-minute mark once Julien took over, and that’s impressive considering that this discussion is happening around a rookie. And if there was any question as to the work Julien can accomplish with younger players, this is also when Lehkonen’s offensive productivity increased.
The final piece of evidence to suggest a significant increase in Artturi Lehkonen’s productivity this upcoming season is the 2017 playoff series against the New York Rangers. Lehkonen scored four points for the Canadiens in the 6-game audition, and while that’s certainly an unsupportable increase in productivity over an overly small sample size, it is worth noting that his confidence level had increased by this point as shown by his increased shot totals during these six contests. Lehkonen averaged under three shots per game during the regular season, but shot 20 times in six games versus the Rangers, well over his own average. Finally, consider Julien’s own words about Lehkonen’s performance in the playoffs, via Frank Seravalli of TSN:
“He’s just one of those players that keeps impressing all the time […] To me, he’s way ahead of his curve of development. Unbelievable hockey sense. Incredible poise. He’s one of those guys that if you came to watch a hockey game and didn’t know any of the players, you would never think this is a young guy in his first year.”
Through it all, one constant thread seems to apply itself to Artturi Lehkonen and his 2016-2017 campaign, he was a rookie who actually got better as the year progressed. Not often is this the case, and so, all fans of the Canadiens should be intrigued at what this young man could potentially have in stock for this upcoming season. Whether a fan of advanced stats, classic stats, the old-fashioned eye-test, or players who play their best when it’s playoff time, it really doesn’t matter. All of these categories have one thing in common in this case; they suggest that Lehkonen is a kid who could have only shown us the tip of the iceberg in relation to his potential in the NHL. And if all the numbers don’t tickle your fancy, consider the high praise toward him by his coach during the playoffs too! This is the same coach that will be guiding him through his second campaign as a Montreal Canadien. These are the reasons why Artturi Lehkonen is my number one candidate to be a breakthrough performer for the Montreal Canadiens in the 2017-2018 season.