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Un-Finnish-ed business

Artturi Lehkonen enjoyed a breakout year in Montreal, but it was hardly beginner's luck

by Steven Nechay @CanadiensMTL / canadiens.com

Saku Koivu called it.

Months before Artturi Lehkonen emerged as a household name in Montreal, the former Canadiens captain predicted his rookie countrymate would earn a roster spot in the city.

It's just too bad Koivu didn't go double-or-nothing with his bold prognostication from across the pond.

Fast-forward to today, and not only did Lehkonen suit up for 73 games in his debut NHL campaign, but he's also coming off the most successful season by a Finnish Hab since the pride of Turku himself.

But while Captain K -- who hung up his skates in September 2014 -- can finally spend a summer looking back on nearly two decades of accomplishments now that he's been inducted to the International Ice Hockey Hall of Fame, Lehkonen, for his part, will be looking ahead to an even better follow-up act.

Video: NYR@MTL, Gm5: Lehkonen pots wraparound off rebound

"I know it's still kind of early to say for next season, but I want to get better," admitted the 21-year-old forward. "For sure, I know I can do better. I still have a lot of work to do in the summer to achieve the things that I want to do. I have to get stronger all-around physically -- stronger, faster, and better in every way. How I'm going to do it is another thing."

Indeed, the first-year NHL student has some homework to handle this offseason if he's going to improve on an impressive year in which he finished among the league's Top 10 rookie goal scorers.

Lehkonen came to Montreal on the heels of a championship run with Frölunda HC in the Swedish Hockey League last fall. He exploded out of the gate, racking up 18 goals with the Canadiens -- two less than Koivu's debut haul in 1995-96 -- plus 10 assists during the regular season, before adding two more of each in the playoffs.

Needless to say, the flying Finn has generally been regarded as a pleasant surprise from the 2016-17 Habs season, but -- just like his iconic predecessor from the Land of a Thousand Lakes -- Lehkonen is hardly shocked at how seamlessly his North American career has begun.

"[My first NHL season] was around the way I expected it to be. [I performed] the way I knew I could. It was a long season, and I just tried to go day-by-day and live in the moment. It was a decent year," underlined Lehkonen, who was fifth among all Habs with 158 shots, and ended the year with three game-winning tallies. "I felt like I became a more complete player all-around."

Credit the likewise well-rounded roster of helpful role models he's benefited from over the years.

Early on in Europe, the speedy winger had two-time NHL All-Star Sami Kapanen showing him the ropes with KalPa, before later moving on to set a club playoff scoring record under Roger Rönnberg in Sweden.

More recently in Montreal, he notably spent the bulk of the season sharing a line with two-time Stanley Cup Champion, Andrew Shaw.

"It was a lot to learn, for sure, but the guys we have on the team took me in from the beginning of the season. They showed me how things are done, and that helped me a lot along the way. The longer the season went, the more I realized how important it was for me to get that guidance at the beginning of the year," described Lehkonen, who also spent time on the second power play unit alongside assistant captains Brendan Gallagher and Tomas Plekanec -- potting two with the man advantage. "The closer the year got to an end, the more comfortable I felt while also getting results -- getting goals and helping the team out. The longer the season went on, and the more games I got under me, the better I got."

That it all came to a close so suddenly, however, has left the Piikkiö native wrestling with a sense of unfinished business since April.

In the end, it wasn't that he managed to stick around Montreal for a full season that came as a surprise to Lehkonen. Instead, it was only getting to take part in six playoff games following a year filled with so much promise that shocked the young forward.

"It's not the greatest feeling. Nobody wants to get knocked out that early in the season," acknowledged the 6-foot, 182-pounder, who missed just nine games due to injury. "We believed in ourselves and believed that we could have gone further, but it wasn't meant to be this year."

Fortunately when it comes to next year, the former second-round draft pick has already received a vote of confidence from his head coach and general manager.

And although exceeding expectations a second time will be doubly difficult now that he's no longer flying under the radar, Lehkonen isn't about to start showing rookie nerves in Montreal just yet.

"When a season comes to an end this early, it's always a disappointment, but [Claude Julien and Marc Bergevin] were positive, and we had a good talk about what they think I need to improve on and what I think I need to improve on," concluded the sixth-year pro. "I know what I have to do."

And if he doesn't, well, he could always get Saku's take over the summer back home.

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