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Coach Keefe’s Call: Maple Leafs’ Lehtonen’s Not Ready for Prime Time

The Toronto Maple Leafs new defenseman Mikko Lehtonen has had a hard time adjusting to NHL ice. What will happen to him?

It’s probably going to take a little more time for the Toronto Maple Leafs’ new defenseman to get acclimated to the NHL game. Although former KHL’s defenseman of the year Mikko Lehtonen won the award last season as the best in the KHL, according to head coach Sheldon Keefe, he’s not quite ready for primetime with the NHL’s Maple Leafs – at least not yet.

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There’s more work to do. As a result, coach Keefe has bumped Travis Dermott onto the third-pairing as a Maple Leafs’ defenseman and – at least for the time being – has moved Lehtonen off that spot.

Travis Dermott, Toronto Maple Leafs

That obviously doesn’t mean Lehtonen is a bust. It simply means that, given the history of how European defensemen tend to adapt to the smaller ice surfaces in North America as they play in the NHL, it’s simply going to take the Finnish defenseman more time and practice to fit into the Maple Leafs’ plans as a full-time player. That’s less a question of skill then practice, experience, and perhaps even muscle memory.

Keefe Explains Why Lehtonen Will Be Held Out

In the video below, head coach Keefe explains why the team has decided to swap Travis Dermott for Mikko Lehtonen in their top-six defensive unit for the time being, letting the youngster take a step back to concentrate on the parts of his game that aren’t ready.

What Was Keefe’s Logic for the Decision to Hold Lehtonen Out?

When asked what he was thinking, Keefe simply suggested that the coaching staff had been reflecting on Lehtonen’s progress throughout the first week of training camp. As a result of what they’ve seen, a decision was made that – when considering their history of experiences in similar situations – the team might help their player grow more successful in his adjustment if Lehtonen had more time to watch before they pushed him into a full-time shift.

Mikko Lehtonen Maple Leafs KHL NHL

Really, for Maple Leafs fans, that decision shouldn’t be a surprise. Sometimes it simply takes a little bit longer for, as I suggested, European defenseman to make an adjustment to the size of North American ice surfaces.

What Keefe Really Likes About Lehtonen

Although it might seem like a setback for the Finnish defenseman, there’s certainly no sense that the Maple Leafs have or will give up on Lehtonen as a player. In fact, there are a number of things the organization really likes about him. Specifically, his work on the power play is one key aspect. According to Keefe, Lehtonen is ready right now to contribute to special teams’ play.

Mikko Lehtonen, new Maple Leafs Defenseman

However, the bottom line is that – right now – other areas of his game need a little bit more time and attention. As an organization, the Maple Leafs don’t want to rush Lehtonen into a situation where he’d be less than successful simply because he hasn’t practiced or played enough yet. As a result, the Maple Leafs will take their time with Lehtonen.

The Impact of this Unique Preseason

One thing Keefe did hint at was that the unique situation of the preseason – missing a more traditional exhibition schedule – hasn’t helped Lehtonen hone his game. Because the team can only scrimmage instead of playing games against other competitors, the organization “is going to take a little step back” to give Lehtonen more time to watch and get a better feel for the League.

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The things Lehtonen needs to work on can occur in practice and then, when adjustments have been successfully made, the Maple Leafs will have a better sense of when Lehtonen will be more prepared to play a full-time NHL shift.

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