The Toronto Maple Leafs didn’t have much playing time for top KHL free agent signing Mikko Lehtonen, so he’ll get a chance elsewhere. The Columbus Blue Jackets have acquired Lehtonen in exchange for goaltender Veini Vehvilainen.
The Maple Leafs had been looking for more goaltending depth all season after losing Aaron Dell on waivers and experiencing injuries to both Frederik Andersen and Jack Campbell. Vehvilainen will represent that depth, but certainly is no lock to provide quality NHL production. The 24-year-old was a sixth-round pick by the Blue Jackets in 2018 and posted a .901 save percentage in 33 appearances with the Cleveland Monsters of the AHL last season. This year, he has just two games on North American ice and has allowed four goals on 24 shots.
Still, for Toronto, getting a goaltender that is waiver-exempt was key, given how they potentially could lose Michael Hutchinson if they try to sneak him through again. If Vehvilainen can find the level of play that earned him Goaltender of the Year honors in Finland, it would be quite the addition to Toronto’s crease.
Lehtonen is the more high-profile name in the deal though, despite only having nine games of NHL experience. The 27-year-old was the best defenseman in the KHL during the 2019-20 season, scoring 17 goals and 49 points in 60 games. That led to a race between many teams for his services as a free agent, a race that Toronto won when he signed a one-year entry-level deal in May.
Unfortunately, thanks to some other free agent additions in Toronto, including T.J. Brodie and Zach Bogosian, Lehtonen’s playing time has been sporadic. In nine games with the Maple Leafs, he does have three points, but he has averaged fewer than 12 minutes in those appearances. He’ll likely get a much bigger role in Columbus where he can help their powerplay and hopefully drive some offense.
Importantly, Lehtonen’s entry-level deal did include a European Assignment Clause, one that could have been activated when the Maple Leafs sent him to the minor leagues yesterday. If it covered this far into the season, the Finnish defenseman could have potentially forced an assignment back overseas instead of playing with the Toronto Marlies of the AHL. If that’s the case, the Maple Leafs at least turned him into a goaltending asset, even though Vehvilainen is something of a question mark himself.
Lehtonen will now need to obtain a work visa and clear COVID protocols before he can join the Blue Jackets, but they are already familiar with him. Chris Johnston of Sportsnet reports that Columbus was one of the teams that pursued the free agent defenseman last year. A strong skater who can walk the offensive blue line and routinely get pucks on net through traffic, he could become an option to run the second powerplay. There’s no guarantee of that, but even in his short stint with the Maple Leafs, it looked like Lehtonen had enough to play at the NHL level if deployed in the right manner.