For some reason, there has yet to be a significant player from Finland to suit up for the New Jersey Devils franchise. Even going as far back as Kansas City and Colorado, there hasn't been a Finnish player who really stood out for some period of time. I noted that back in 2011 and not much has changed since then. Defenseman Tapio Levo had the old record of 107 games with the organization during in Colorado's last and New Jersey's first season. Anssi Salmela finished as the second most frequent Finn to play for New Jersey with 74. And neither were drafted by New Jersey. It's not that the Devils have had an aversion to the Scandanavian nation, it's just that none of the picks of players from there panned out - and none of the free agents either. However, this could be the year the Devils could try and change that with the offensively-enticing KalPa winger Artturi Lehkonen, provided is available.
Who is Artturi Lehkonen?
According to his profile at the SM-Liiga official website, Lehkonen played his first full season in the top Finnish league with KalPa. Lehkonen was born on July 4, 1995 so he'll turn 18 right after the draft. He stands at 179 cm and 69 kg, which roughly translates to about 5'10" and 152 pounds. Needless to say, he's not a banger of bodies. He was, however, a banger of the boxscore both at the club and international level.
His impressively long statline from Elite Prospects shows that the TPS-product made his SM-Liiga debut at age 16, while lighting it up for his country at the U-17 and U-18 levels. In May 2012, KalPa signed him to a two year deal and began to reap the rewards of his skills. 30 points in 45 games may not seem all that impressive, but it was good enough to finish second on his own team in scoring (and third in shots plus misses with 192) and tied for 40th among all players in the league. He also did it while averaging under 16 minutes per game, too. To put that league production in further perspective, check out Kent Wilson's post at NHL Numbers about NHL equivalencies of the 2013 draft class.Lehkonen finished eleventh among all 2013 draft eligible prospects in NHLE. Provided the conversion rate is true, his 30 points in Finland would've been the equivalent to just under 30 points in a full NHL season. Granted, it's not a guarantee he'll be a scorer at the next level, but it speaks highly of his level of production.
If that wasn't enough, according to his profile at Elite Prospects, he was named the rookie of the year in the SM-Liiga. Clearly, he impressed at the club level. Lehkonen also made his mark outside of Finland. Lehkonen sparkled in the Europen tournament for KalPa (tied for eleventh in scoring among all players), led the Finland U-18 team in scoring for a second straight year, and did well in his World Junior Championship debut. All of this in one season is impressive. It's even more impressive that he did all this at age 17 in a league filled with adult, professional hockey players.
However, there's a pretty big red flag associated with Lehkonen. It's not just that he's a small player, but he's a small player who sustained two concussions in 2012-13. The second was the result of a particularly nasty and unnecessary hit by noted pest, Jarkko Ruutu. Lehkonen did recover from both, as evidenced by his play for KalPa later in the season and representing Finland at the World U-18 tournament. But it's a legitimate concern given that he's a small player, he's not a strong player, and he has been playing on larger ice.
What Experts Have Said About Artturi Lehkonen
It should be no surprise that a player who put up significant production before turning 18 would be praised for their offensive skills. Get ready to read quite a bit of that from the following blurbs and summaries I found online. Let's start with what it says in his profile at Future Considerations:
Lehkonen is a very talented winger with impressive numbers early in Finland’s top men’s league – the SM-Liiga - but one who unfortunately does not have the same impressive numbers in the vitals section of his profile. He is a hardworking team player who does whatever needs to be done to help his team win. The best way for him to do that is to score goals and he can do that with an impressive scoring arsenal. An extremely smart player, Lehkonen has great hockey sense in all three zones and an absolutely deadly shot that he gets off in a blink of an eye.
This is definitely a positive take. It's also not just praising his production as well. In addition to his shot, his work ethic and his all around play - "great hockey sense in all three zones" - are highlighted in this short summary. I get the sense that he's more than just an offensive player.
Moving on, Ryan Pike wrote a profile about Lehkonen at The Hockey Writers. I thought this bit was particularly insightful.
It’s easy to see why teams will like Artturi Lehkonen on draft day. He’s fast, agile and good with the puck. He’s a strong skater with the hockey sense and tenacity to compete in a high-level professional league. As a 17-year-old. It’s also easy to see why some teams may be a bit cautious, as he’s not incredibly big for a hockey player. That said, he’ll grow and he’ll fill out, but his biggest challenge when coming over to North America will be dealing with bigger players and smaller ice. He’s already elusive, but he’ll also need to avoid getting crunched along the boards in the land of the giants.
In a way, I do agree with Pike. Players can and do become stronger as they fill out their frame. And the proof that Lehkonen is good with the puck is in the points. But unless Lehkonen is a late bloomer, he's likely going to remain as a smaller player. Provided he can skate well and manage to be resilient enough to take some physical play, that's not such a big deal. The latter is a concern since he's not just a small player, but a small player with a history of concussions.
Lehkonen's second-straight stand-out performance at the World U-18 tournament garnered plenty of praise. While Finland had to settle for a bronze medal. Ryan Kennedy touted his shot in this article at The Hockey News. Over at Jatkoaika, Miika Arponen had plenty of choice quotes from TSN analyst Craig Button about the tournament, quipping that Lehkonen is like Jeff Skinner. While I wouldn't put a whole lot of stock into a short tournament, the productive outing was important if only to show that he could still perform at a high level after his concussion. Plus, leaving a lasting impression helps.
Corey Pronman needs no tournament to rank a player. He's confident in his own opinion and observations to rank a guy wherever he thinks best regardless of consensus. Pronman ranked Lehkonen has his 24th best prospect at Hockey Prospectus. Here's his take on the KalPa winger.
Lehkonen is a good all-around offensive talent. He possesses every desirable tool except size. His skating might not be explosive, but it is quality, and he displays solid speed and elusiveness. He has above-average puck skills, with quick movements and good coordination. His best skills, however, are his hockey sense and his shot. Lehkonen shows awareness and instinctual ability when creating scoring chances. He has impressive vision as a playmaker, and he regularly makes good passes. Despite these qualities, scouts do not unanimously love him. However, all agree that he is a goal scorer. He has a high-end shot, and a good ability to put himself in positions to score. He will need to bulk up at the next level, as he is a small, slight player. In spite of his size, he works hard on the ice, and his grittiness helps him overcome his stature. One additional area of concern: he suffered from concussion issues this season.
A lot of this falls in line with his production at the club and European levels in this past season. Based on Pronman's opinion in conjunction with what others have said, it's clear he can both make up and finish plays on offense. The skating's not an issue, the play with the puck seems fine, and his hockey sense can't be great if it only goes one way. In reading this along with the other opinions filled with praise, I'm not at all surprised that Pronman has him in his top thirty prospects. That doesn't mean he'll actually be a first rounder (example: Daniil Zharkov, ranked 28th, selected 91st overall), but it does mean he thinks he's a talent.
I like that Pronman brought up the concussions as an issue. It is one and while he may have proven to perform shortly after recovery, one has to wonder what future ones might do to him. In light of that, I'm a little concerned that Pronman noted his "grittiness." While I don't think it contributed to them - Jarkko Ruutu lit him up after a routine pass in his own end - I don't know if I want the rather small skilled forward who's had two concussions to be gritty. I have nothing wrong in general with going to difficult areas to win pucks and keep plays going. I understand it's necessary. I just hope he'll be smarter about it - especially if or when he comes to North America.
A Little Video
Let's look at some video of Artturi Lehkonen that doesn't involve Jarkko Ruutu trying to make "Jarrko" an acceptable synonym for "jerk." Here's a highlight video of his 2012-13 season with KalPa, wearing the uncommon number #62. Scoring a goal while being tripped up is certainly a highpoint in my eyes:
An Opinion of Sorts
I think it speaks to the quality of the 2013 Entry Draft that I've seen Artturi Lehkonen projected all over the place. There are those who think he really could be a first round pick and there are those who think he'd be a mid-second rounder. I do think that Lehkonen could definitely be justified as a higher pick. What more could he have done in his 2012-13 season? He was very productive for KalPa, his production has a very good NHL equivalency, and he did very well at the international level. Those who have seen and followed him have nothing but great things to say about his shot and his head for the game. They also tend to say good things about his skating and other skills. He did all of this at the age of 17 in a league filled with men.
The main issues with him as far as I can tell are the following. The first is the general issue of whether he can translate his game to the smaller rink in a faster North American game. Given that he's so young and he's got another year on his deal with KalPa, then he's got time to develop and adjust. I'm not so worried about that. The second is his size. Being 5'10" isn't that big of a deal. Not even weighing 160 pounds is. Lehkonen really does need to hit the gym and put on some muscle. I doubt he'll be asked to throw his weight around, but it's not inconceivable he could bulk up and better handle the rigors of the pro game. The third issue are the concussions and taken with the second issue, it's a bit worrisome. It's akin to a player already undergone significant surgery for an injury at such a young age. It's not Lehkonen's fault; he didn't ask to be wrecked by Ruutu, but it just means more concern in case the next time it happens. Maybe it won't be an issue in the future and I think Lehkonen did demonstrate that possibility near the end of his 2012-13 campaign. But why take the risk when there are other offensively talented forwards that could be there in the late first or early second round? Someone definitely will given his skills and accomplishments so far, it's just a question of when.
All told, if he's available at 39th overall, then I wouldn't mind if the Devils do select him. He wouldn't be the first pick in the first two rounds that had a notable injury history by the Devils. He would definitely address the need for offensive forwards in the system. The fact that he's been doing it in a pro league does endear me to think he could take it to the next level. He wouldn't have to be rushed either. I think he can take that second season with KalPa, hopefully build on his game, and then come over the AHL to take that next step. Given all the praise about his shot and hockey sense, I would think that if there's a Finnish prospect that could potentially be a significant player for New Jersey, then he's a good bet as any. That said, I can certainly understand if the Devils take someone else that's similar skill-wise that didn't have two concussions before he was 18.
Now that you've read all this about Artturi Lekhonen, I want to know your opinion. Did you find his 2012-13 season impressive given his production for club and country? Are you as concerned about the fact he's had two concussions already in addition to his small frame? Would you want the Devils to draft him if he's available in the second round, or should they pass on him? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Lehkonen in the comments. Thank you for reading.