The Maple Leafs have thought better of their plan to start rookie defenceman Mikko Lehtonen in the top-six rotation this season, bumping the blueliner onto their fourth pairing (and off the second power-play unit) at Monday’s practice in favour of Travis Dermott.
“We think there's areas of [Lehtonen’s] game that need a little bit more time. We don't want to rush him into a situation that he may not be adjusted to quite yet,” said head coach Sheldon Keefe on a Zoom call Monday. “So we're going to take our time with that….and take a little step back with Mikko and give him more time to watch and get a feel for the league. …We expect that he obviously will get in at some point, and we hope he's more prepared when that's the case.”
For now, Lehtonen is paired with Rasmus Sandin, while Dermott is with Zach Bogosian. T.J. Brodie has taken over Lehtonen’s previous spot on the power play.
It’s a somewhat unexpected turn of events for Lehtonen, who the Leafs were counting on to contribute right away. Toronto signed Lehtonen to a one-year, entry-level contract in May 2020, just days before he was named the KHL’s Defenceman of the Year for a 49-point effort in 60 games with Jokerit Helsinki.
Never drafted by an NHL club, the 26-year-old had spent the entirety of his professional career bouncing around the Finnish and Swedish Elite leagues before producing his standout campaign with Jokerit in 2019-20.
Lehtonen had drawn raves reviews from teammates since arriving at the Leafs’ practice facility in November for his inexhaustible work ethic and commitment to mastering the defensive systems. Keefe’s decision to slot him on Toronto’s third pairing with Zach Bogosian to open training camp only seemed to underscore just how fast Lehtonen had caught on.
But in Saturday’s Blue and White scrimmage, a game designed to replicate the look and feel of the exhibition contests Toronto won’t be getting before this pandemic-shortened regular season begins, Keefe began seeing more cracks in Lehtonen’s game.
Despite Lehtonen quarterbacking the Leafs’ second power-play group and notching a pair of assists, Keefe felt there were still something off.
“I thought he did what he does well in terms of getting pucks at the net; he was more comfortable in that sense and that was really good to see,” Keefe said on Saturday. “At the same time, you could tell that with the increased pace of play, the way this game was here today in comparison to our previous scrimmages, it was a lot more game-like in that sense. And I think you can still see him adjusting to that.”
Keefe did admit in Monday’s availability that Lehtonen’s special teams work was strong (“Certainly on the powerplay, we feel like he's ready right now to contribute there.”), but ultimately he and his staff determined that Lehtonen just wasn’t as ready for showtime as they thought.
In an effort to learn from past mistakes, they opted to demote him sooner than later.
“[We did this] knowing we're playing off a little bit of some of the history of players in his situation that have come into our organization and have been put in right away,” Keefe said.
“And [those players were] coming off of a more traditional exhibition season where they get a lot of games to find their way. In this case, it's a scrimmage and no games against other competition.”
While he didn’t name names, Keefe could have been referring to a few recent attempts the Leafs made to bolster the blueline with players excelling overseas. Calle Rosen and Andreas Borgman were heralded free agent signings from the SHL in spring 2017, but Borgman flamed out after appearing in 48 games for Toronto in 2017-18 and Rosen skated in only four contests that same year. Both were eventually traded in 2019 (Borgman to St. Louis and Rosen to Colorado, although he was re-acquired by Toronto last fall).
There was also Igor Ozhiganov, a highly recruited Russian defenceman who signed an entry-level deal with Toronto ahead of the 2018-19 season only to produce seven points in 53 games before returning to the KHL.
Those are the types of situations Toronto doesn’t want happening again, where new defencemen they push into prominent roles can’t handle the pressure.
Instead, Keefe will put Dermott back into the third-pairing role he held most of last season, with an eye on seeing the 24-year-old improve further.
“I would really like to see Travis latch on to his strengths,” Keefe explained. “For me there were three real key areas: One, going back for the puck to start our breakouts. And then defensive zone puck pressure and creating separation, creating loose pucks to get us out of our end that way. And then just his gap control in order to get into our zones. Those are three areas I'd like to see him just really excel at [and] a lot of really positive things come into his game over time.”
Skating with Bogosian also puts Dermott back on his natural left side after he was taking a right-side position with Sandin. While Bogosian himself is new to the Leafs as well, the veteran has found just about everyone on the blueline easy enough to play with, including Dermott.
“He's a good skater, good communicator,” Bogosian said of Dermott. “I like the way things are shaping up back there [on defence]. There's not a bad player back there to play with, so whoever you're playing with on any given night, that's exciting. Derms is a good puck mover and I'm looking forward to getting some more reps with him and getting that chemistry.”
Bogosian went on to say the defence has received specific instructions throughout training camp on how to help the team succeed, and it starts with pulling in the right direction.
“[Keefe has] preached, 'speed, speed, speed' and 'it's north, north, north,’” Bogosian laughed. “So it's been it's been fun so far. I think when you have the skill group like we do up front, you want to play fast, and that starts with us back there on the back end moving the puck up as quick as possible, getting the puck in their hands and letting them go to work.”
The one thing Keefe has also made clear over the past week is that nothing he’s doing now is set in stone, not even after Toronto cut 12 players from their roster on Monday ahead of Wednesday’s opener against Montreal. The door is always open for anyone - including Lehtonen - to bounce back.
“I don't know if any decision that's been made would we describe as final,” Keefe said. “We’re just getting started here. We're expecting whether those guys that are going to be in the lineup or guys who are on the taxi squad or guys that are assigned directly to the Marlies, it’s going to be a fluid situation as we see throughout the season and we're going to need a lot of people. Everybody is important and has a role to play.”