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Transcript: Mikko Lehtonen & Kyle Dubas Media Call

by Staff Writer MapleLeafs / MapleLeafs.com

General manager Kyle Dubas and newly-signed Maple Leafs defenceman Mikko Lehtonen held a conference call with the media earlier today.

MIKKO LEHTONEN

Q (Terry Koshan, Toronto Sun): Can you just give us a sense of what you think you can bring to the Leafs blueline starting next season, whenever that might be?

MIKKO LEHTONEN: Of course. I think I'm a two-way defenceman, can skate well and move the puck well, so I hope I can bring my strengths on the ice. I shoot the puck. These are my strengths and I want to bring those.

Q (Terry Koshan, Toronto Sun): What was the weekend was like for you? Was it fairly busy? Were you entertaining offers? How did that go for you?

MIKKO LEHTONEN: I don't want to comment, but I'm just happy to join the Leafs. Everybody went so fast and I'm happy for that, I'm very happy with the Leafs.

Q (Jonas Siegel, The Athletic): You had a lot of interest around the League. Why did you choose the Leafs? 

MIKKO LEHTONEN: I think the Leafs are a really good organization, a traditional organization. I think my game fits pretty well with Toronto because they want to skate well. I think those are my strengths and I can bring those too.

Q (Jonas Siegel, The Athletic): Did you have a chance to talk to Sheldon Keefe about how he likes to play and where he might see you fitting in?

MIKKO LEHTONEN: No I haven't talked [with Keefe] before. This morning I talked with Sheldon.

Q (Dave Feschuk, Toronto Star): What do you know about the Maple Leafs? Have you seen them play? Do you watch much NHL hockey? What is your level of knowledge of this team?

MIKKO LEHTONEN: Of course I look at a lot of NHL hockey, especially highlights and stuff like that and I think I have many friends who play there, and I watch those pretty close. I know Toronto is a pretty traditional organization and they have great fans and they have good teams that could win the Cup. These are the things I know, but of course there's a lot of things that I don't know. I think I'm going to learn a lot.

Q (Dave Feschuk, Toronto Star): Who are your best friends in the NHL, and do you have any friends on the Maple Leafs, as it as it is now?

MIKKO LEHTONEN: I know a bit Kasperi Kapanen in Toronto but not that much. I know pretty well Mikko Rantanen is a good friend of mine and, of course, Teuvo Teravainen, Rasmus Ristolainen and Artturi Lehkonen -- you probably know those guys. Rasmus and Mikko and Artturi are from the same city as me so I know those guys pretty well and talk to them many times about the NHL and NHL hockey. 

Q (Luke Fox, Sportsnet): When did you first fall in love with the game of hockey? 

MIKKO LEHTONEN: I think it was when I was three years old, my dad and mom brought me to the closest rink and I got to skate there and then, I don't know, maybe that was that.

Q (Luke Fox, Sportsnet): What made you want to play defence?

MIKKO LEHTONEN: Hard to say, actually. I wanted to be a forward before I played [defence]. I think it was one coach who said you can pass and skate really well and after that I started playing D and actually I like it a lot as a D, so it was good choice.

Q (Luke Fox, Sportsnet): How comfortable are you on the right side? I know you're a lefty.

MIKKO LEHTONEN: I'm okay with both. I played in Sweden a whole season on the right side so it's not a problem for me. It doesn't matter of right or left side, I'm okay with both. Actually, sometimes I like more right side.

Q (Luke Fox, Sportsnet): Why do you think you weren't drafted?

MIKKO LEHTONEN: Hard to say. I think I wasn't that good at that time. It's hard to say one thing. There was always good players being draft, so I didn't make it. It doesn't matter. I have proved I can play at a really high level without being drafted. You can sign an NHL contract if you work hard and believe in your dreams. I think that's the way you can make it in hockey or anything.

KYLE DUBAS

Q (Terry Koshan, Toronto Sun): How do you see Mikko fitting in? We all get caught up in the right-left angle I suppose, and he just said he's fine playing the right side. What do you foresee as his future fitting in on the blueline with the Leafs?

KYLE DUBAS: First, before I start, I just want to, obviously, congratulate Mikko and welcome him to the Maple Leafs. Specifically thank the Jokerit organization -- Jarri Kurri and Janne Vuorinen there -- they were excellent to deal with and without their cooperation and without their allowing Mikko to pursue this it doesn't happen, so I think it speaks to the quality of organization they are. Just in how they operate and the job that they do in development and it's greatly appreciated by our organization. With regards to Mikko and where he fits in, he's had an excellent career. Definitely one of the best defenceman in the KHL throughout the season, if not the best. For us, I think you want to really work towards his strengths and what he does best and fit that into our program. I agree with Mikko 100 percent why it's a fit for us and him, is the way that he plays and the way that we want to play, his ability to be a two-way defenceman. And, with regards to whether he'll play the left and right side, it's such a hard thing to answer right now. It would be easier if our season was over and we knew more about where we were at. But I think we want to hopefully get back and finish our season and evaluate things from there that determine whether we want to try him on both sides, but I think the versatility certainly helps. We're really excited that Mikko elected to have us be the place that he's come to play in North America and look forward to getting to work with him.

Q (Jonas Siegel, The Athletic): Is this another example of Jim Paliafito kind of going out there and bringing back a player for the organization?

KYLE DUBAS: Yeah, absolutely. It's another testament to the work that Jim does. I think this one in particular would be Jim -- he's built a relationship with Mikko, he's built a relationship with Mikko's agent in Finland -- and Ari Vuori, our Director of European Scouting. He's from Finland and knows Mikko and has spoken with him as well. I think it's another testament to the job that Jim is able to do and really, rather than try to cast a wide net on a lot of different players and try to haul in whatever we can, really constrain our focus to a few guys that we think are a great fit for us that Jim really does all the legwork and deserves all of the credit -- in this case, along with Ari -- for having Mikko sign with the Maple Leafs.

Q (Jonas Siegel, The Athletic): Is that really what it comes down to? You've had success in getting a lot of these guys to come to Toronto, is that kind of what you'd point to as to the reasons why?

KYLE DUBAS: We all work together and identify the players we think would be a fit for us and Jim is an integral part of that along with Dave Morrison and Wes Clark and John Lilley and Ari Vuori, the rest of our player personnel group, as well as Darryl Metcalf in our front office. And then Jim really gets to know the player and Jim will report back whether the player is a fit in terms of personality and character, watch him play and file his reports and get a sense for what's important to the player, and whether that's in alignment with what we need. I think, rather than bringing over a lot of different guys and taking flyers on them, we want them to be able to come over and be successful. I think that's what creates an attraction for others down the road. If you go back to Jim's track record, we don't have many guys in there that I think were overly disappointed in the year and even the guys that may not have been thrilled or in the NHL for a full season, it just didn't really work out to the maximum level. By and large, the players have all come over, they've all developed, and I think it just speaks to the job that Jim does ensuring that the players are a good fit for the organization and then educating the players and their representatives and their families on what we're about as an organization. So, we're thrilled to have Jim on our staff and a key part of our management group. He does a great job. This is another example of that.

Q (Jonas Siegel, The Athletic): Do you recall when Mikko first came on your radar and whether you went over there to watch him play?

KYLE DUBAS: Yeah, I could tell you exactly when it was. It was during the Karjala Cup, the Saturday night game. It was Finland, it was in Helsinki, and he was outstanding in that game. Jim had seen him before and been pushing him before. I was over there scouting between the Karjala Cup and the Five Nations. He played great in that game and so, from that point forward, we wanted to figure out what Mikko's situation was with Jokerit and what their plans were for him and Jim really handled all of that. That's how he came onto our radar and how we had seen him.

Q (Dave Feschuk, Toronto Star): I'm just curious about how you sort of make that projection about whether a guy's game, as good as he's playing in the KHL, will translate to your team and your league?

KYLE DUBAS: Yeah, I think you never know for sure, Dave. There's always a risk, but I think when the skill set, the ability to make plays, plus the ability to defend and skate all align and then, even though Mikko is going to be 26 at the beginning of next season, I think the fact that he continued to improve rapidly throughout the season as well made us only more and more confident that he would be a fit for us. Once we commit that we're going to go all in for a free agent, you know it's going to be highly competitive against a dozen or dozens of other teams, we really try to get familiar with the player and educate our entire staff so there's buy-in throughout the organization with regards to how they play and how we want to play. So that's the process that we usually go through. It's never perfect when you're projecting athletes and their performance. The thing that I would say though is that a change -- one of the things that used to happen, especially in the KHL -- we'd hear the comment of, 'How will the player play on the smaller ice surface?' but this year in the KHL a lot of teams moved to a smaller ice surface anyway -- to the NHL surface or to the Finnish-style surface. So that question mark has kind of gone by the wayside a little bit. We're pretty excited and confident that Mikko will be able to come in and adapt pretty well.

Q (Dave Feschuk, Toronto Star): You talk about how it's tough to project what your D is going to look like in terms of the left and right, but just looking at it right now, knowing what you know, how do you feel about your D corps moving forward?

KYLE DUBAS: It's always a big topic of conversation And I think the unfortunate part of this season is that I think is it was unfortunate in one regard that we never got to see the group really all together, but on the positive side, it allowed for a player like Justin Holl to really flourish and get more opportunity and that presented us with more certainty on one end of it But as we go ahead, we know we're going to have Morgan Riley, we know we're going to have Jake Muzzin. We know we're going to have Justin Holl. We're going to be able to bring back Travis Dermott who will be a restricted free agent. And then we've got our younger guys in Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren and Teemu Kivihalme and Calle Rosen and so on. And then you've got the decisions on the UFA guys in Ceci and Barrie. So, I think we're trying to continue to build our depth there and we like our options, but it's certainly an area that we need to see progress in, whether it's the development of Dermott or the development of Sandin and Liljegren or the acquisition of the players like Mikko or through other means. So, it's something we're continuing to work on and develop. We like the group and we're looking forward to seeing it play all healthy and get rolling.

Q (Dave Feschuk, Toronto Star): How do you feel about the prospect of us draft in June before the season is over?

KYLE DUBAS: Yeah, I guess ever since it began to get floated out there and talked about, we've just taken the mindset that, rather than trying to get involved in the political part of it or the discussions or the angst about it, we're just going to try to prepare as though it is going to happen and at the very worst we'll get a test run into a draft process that isn't going to be normal, because it's not going to be normal regardless of when it is. So, we're fine with whatever's decided. We have 10 picks. A lot of them are later on so rather than try to worry about when it's going to be, I think our organization has felt that we have to use whatever time we have, whether it's four weeks from now or whether it's four months, to really, really, really try to hone in our focus on making sure that we make the most of those picks, because they're going to be imperative to the future progress of our program, Dave.

Q (Luke Fox, Sportsnet): Can you give us an idea of just how competitive it was to land Mikko, maybe in comparison to some of the other [European free agents]?

KYLE DUBAS: Yeah, it was. With players like this and, especially with the year that he had -- winning the KHL Defenceman of the Month three months in a row and how well he played at international events where there's always a large NHL presence -- this one was a pretty competitive situation. There's always lots of teams involved. These players, you look at them and look at the guys that have come into our lineup and there's certainly a number of other teams throughout the League that have brought in European pros and I think it's a way to bring players in that are a little bit more mature and that have great professional experience and international experience and Mikko's track record is a pretty big one with regards to his play in World Championships and Olympics, and various other events for Finland. We knew this was going to be a really competitive matter and I think these things are only getting more competitive as teams find ways to bring players into their organizations that have professional experience and that can come in with without a huge initial price tag.

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