The brief experiment of KHL stud defenseman Mikko Lehtonen plying his trade in North America is over, perhaps for good. TSN’s Chris Johnston reports that Lehtonen has signed a four-year deal with SKA St. Petersburg. At 27 years old, this could mark the end of his NHL career. The move comes less than a week after his contract with the Columbus Blue Jackets was terminated.
Lehtonen’s time in North America was tumultuous, to say the least. Lehtonen signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs on a one-year deal in May 2020. Despite the future contract being signed in-season, implying that Lehtonen was a player that Toronto had been closely following and had prioritized, his time with the Leafs was short-lived. Lehtonen was traded to Columbus in March after playing in just nine games. He played much more frequently for the Blue Jackets down the stretch, logging 17 games. Yet, he produced the same three points in Columbus as he did in Toronto, totaling zero goals, six points, and a -2 rating to show for his first year. Unsurprisingly, Lehtonen failed to crack the Columbus roster in training camp this season. However, he refused to report to the AHL’s Cleveland Monsters, leading to a pass through unconditional waivers and a contract termination.
Though some players have contracts terminated and are still able to find another landing spot in the NHL, such as Sami Niku last month, it should come as no surprise that Lehtonen has instead opted to return to Russia. The KHL’s Defenseman of the Year in 2019-20, Lehtonen recorded 17 goals and 49 points in 60 games for Jokerit. He was then a point-per-game player in 17 games with the club before reporting to Toronto last year. A player who has previously produced at a high level in Sweden and his native Finland, Lehtonen simply seems built for the European game. Joining a powerhouse like SKA, Lehtonen is returning to a more comfortable style of play and skill level and will have the surrounding talent to produce and chase a Gagarin Cup every year. Once his current deal is over in 2025, it is doubtful that a then-31-year-old Lehtonen will try to return to the NHL.