The Finn was depended on to help shut down the opposition’s best players. There Lehkonen was to the right of Rem Pitlick and Jake Evans, up against Brady Tkachuk and Tim Stützle for most the night, with his feet in perpetual motion and his stick constantly in the way.
As a line, they held the 12-8 shot-attempt advantage at 5-on-5 against all Senators, according to naturalstattrick.com. On his own, Lehkonen was a menace on the forecheck, a force on the backcheck, a key cog on a penalty kill that kept the Ottawa Senators to one goal on four attempts, and the main reason the Canadiens stepped off the ice at Canadian Tire Centre having notched their fifth consecutive win.
He scored Montreal’s first goal at 16:47 of the first period, and he potted their only other one just under 13 minutes after Colin White tied the game 1-1 in the second period.
They were goals eight and nine and points 21 and 22 in Lehkonen’s 50th game of the season, and he deserved them.
“He plays the right way. He’s a guy who takes care of the team, I can’t stop saying it,” responded Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis when he was asked afterwards about Lehkonen. “Defensively, he’s an excellent hockey player. Offensively, he sees the game.
“And it’s fun to see a player like that rewarded with some goals, because it gives him confidence. Players like Lehkonen never try to cheat offensively without taking care of the defensive side, so it’s fun when they get rewarded for that with confidence and a sense of value.”
So, why trade him?
That’s the question many Canadiens fans are asking at the moment, with the NHL’s deadline coming on Mar. 21 and Lehkonen’s name vaulting to the top of the list of players likely to find a new home between now and then. It’s a legitimate question to be asking as management hopes to build the Canadiens into a young, skilled, fast, hard-working and in-your-face team.
Lehkonen fits naturally into that equation. And if money were no object, he would be guaranteed a new contract in Montreal.
But with the salary cap stagnant—it may or may not increase by a million dollars this off-season and likely won’t budge much more over the next couple of years—re-signing him to the deal he’s earning just doesn’t make much sense. He’s arbitration-eligible, a year away from unrestricted free agency, looking at least a million dollars more per season on his $2.3-million salary, and the Canadiens are already paying too much for middle/bottom-six forwards Joel Armia and Paul Byron, who each make $3.4 million on deals with term and likely won’t be traded for pennies on the dollar between now and next fall.
With versatile forward Jesse Ylönen maturing in the AHL—and with 24-year-old Pitlick and 26-year-old Laurent Dauphin proving to be serviceable 200-foot players who are up for new contracts that likely won’t combine to cost as much as Lehkonen’s will next year—trading the Finn is that much more viable.
But what makes it most viable is the value Lehkonen currently holds on the trade market, with several teams interested in adding him before 3:00 p.m. ET on deadline day.
If seeing Lehkonen pop a couple of goals on this night made the Montreal faithful lament the thought of him playing for someone else, it also probably made his suitors all the more enticed by the thought of acquiring him.
Goals haven’t come as often as the 26-year-old would have liked—or as anyone watching him would’ve expected—over his 388 games in the NHL. Lehkonen first arrived on this stage in 2016, just months after breaking Daniel Alfredsson’s playoff scoring record with the Swedish Hockey League’s Frolunda Indians. He scored his first-ever goal against the Senators, and it was one of 18 he notched in 73 games before posting two goals and four points in his first six Stanley Cup Playoff games.
It was widely thought that the former second-round pick would build on that, with all the details in his game making him a scoring-chance generator of the first order. But Lehkonen topping out at 13 goals in a season since put a dent in that hope.
Still, while he may only be on pace for 15 goals in 82 games this season, he’s only nine points off his career high and trending towards setting a new one well before the playoffs start.
Granted, offence isn’t the main selling point of Lehkonen’s game.
But add it to his complete profile—and his proven history of elevating his game in the playoffs—and the Canadiens are looking at the potential opportunity to redeem either a first-round pick or a high-end prospect in a trade over the coming weeks.
Whether another team is willing to pay as much—like the two-time Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning did for Lehkonen-types Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow in 2020—is debatable.
But any team with aspirations to go far in these playoffs had to be watching Lehkonen’s performance against the Senators on Saturday and thinking it would be worth it. Especially one that isn’t paying too much for middle/bottom-six forwards and will happily take advantage of Lehkonen being under team control for one more season.
He was the best player on the ice in a playoff-style game, and surely Canadiens fans weren’t the only ones who appreciated it.