Ever since the Maple Leafs loaned him to the KHL’s Jokerit Helsinki in August, defenceman Mikko Lehtonen had been taking every precaution to avoid contracting COVID-19 while playing overseas.
But the potentially deadly virus caught up to him last month, presenting as a mild case that still raised uneasy questions about his long-term health.
“It was tough,” Lehtonen told TSN on a Zoom call Wednesday. “I had coronavirus, so it was not that good, but it wasn't so bad for me. I could practise pretty normally after that and I feel pretty good. I just had normal cold symptoms. It's done with me and I'm pretty happy. But you're nervous because nobody knows how the virus affects you [over time], so of course you're going to have to start thinking a little bit about that.”
Jokerit first reported on Oct. 23 that four members of the club (who were not identified) had tested positive for COVID-19, forcing the entire team into quarantine and rescheduling a pair of games to later in the season.
The virus has continued spreading around the KHL since, including to Jokerit’s would-be opponent on Wednesday - the Kunlun Red Star - causing that game to also be postponed.
Had that match gone ahead, it would have been Lehtonen’s third appearance post-recovery after missing two games in quarantine. The 26-year-old had a minus-3 rating with zero points in those first two outings back.
“No excuses,” Lehtonen said. “I felt actually pretty good, pretty normal, nothing special with me. We didn’t have that good [of a] lineup in those two games because we had those coronavirus players in our team [missing] too, so we had to have youngsters with us. But I felt pretty good in those games. I think overall I have played good hockey.”
All told, Lehtonen has only skated in 16 contests since Jokerit opened its season in early September, tallying eight goals and eight assists. Despite that production, this disjointed year has taken some getting used to, particularly when it comes to travel.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has been fairly contained in Finland, cases in Russia (where the majority of KHL teams are based) have been on the rise, and the country hit a new daily record in COVID-related deaths on Wednesday (456).
“It’s been hard,” Lehtonen said of pandemic-era travel. “But I think Jokerit has done a good job with that and we have been using a lot of masks and gloves and stuff like that and we tried to do everything the best way we can without [catching] the virus.”
At some point, Lehtonen will leave the KHL behind for Toronto, and begin gearing up for the first NHL season of his career.
The Leafs originally signed the veteran, who was never drafted to the NHL, last May to a one-year, entry-level contract. Lehtonen came with a reputation as one of the best defencemen not playing in the NHL, riding high on a 49-point effort in 60 games through 2019-20 to pace all KHL blueliners in scoring.
On top of those credentials, the left-shooting Lehtonen is perfectly comfortable playing on his right side, which offered the Leafs some much-needed depth and flexibility.
Toronto general manager Kyle Dubas said on numerous occasions throughout the spring and summer that he fully expected Lehtonen to push for a job in the Leafs’ next training camp. The only problem is no one knows when that will be.
The NHL and NHLPA are still hashing out details on how to proceed with the 2020-21 campaign, so Toronto allowed Lehtonen to remain with his KHL club until further notice. But the Leafs have remained a constant presence in Lehtonen’s day-to-day life.
“I have talked a lot with the trainers, and I have had good chats with those guys,” he said. “They have asked me a lot about my practising and how I feel during this time and everything. It’s been good. I want to do the things they want me to do here also and just be ready right away when I come over and I can be able to practise and do their things.”
Landing a spot on the Leafs blueline will be a tougher task now then it was when Lehtonen originally came on board. Since May, the Leafs have added T.J. Brodie on a four-year, $20 million contract and Zach Bogosian on a one-year, $1 million pact. Travis Dermott also re-signed for one year at $874,125, and he projects to square off with Lehtonen, Justin Holl and Rasmus Sandin for a potential third-pairing role next season.
“I know the players they have signed and who they have, but I think it’s good to have good competition with the guys and it keeps it pretty honest,” Lehtonen said. “I’m pretty confident. I feel pretty good. I’m in good shape and I trust myself, so I feel pretty confident.”
Lehtonen is already looking ahead to what his first year in Toronto might be like, taking tips from fellow players about exploring the city and settling on a new jersey number. Lehtonen has worn No. 44 throughout his KHL career, but since that’s already taken by Morgan Rielly, he’s switching to No. 46.
“I have always had at least one four in my number because that’s the thing,” he said. “When I started hockey my first number was 44. When I played with Turku [an elite Finnish team], I was 46. So that’s why [I always have a four].”
When Lehtonen does get settled in with the Leafs, there’s likely to be some excitement over potentially sharing the ice with Joe Thornton. Lehtonen had been idolizing the veteran for years before Thornton inked a one-year deal with Toronto in October, and now they’ll both be wearing the same sweater next season.
“That’s amazing,” Lehtonen said of being Thornton’s teammate. “Like, I have played PlayStation with him many times when I was a kid. …He was one of the players who you look up to and it’s going to be exciting to meet him as a person and see how big he plays and in practice on a daily basis.”