It’s easy to look back at February 28 and note that the Minnesota Wild didn’t make any moves at the NHL trade deadline. Was that a factor in the Wild’s late tumble from a playoff spot? We’ll never know.
We do know that General Manager Chuck Fletcher refused to disrupt the chemistry of a team that had been rolling for the previous two months, and because the price of proven players was too steep for a GM intent on holding onto key prospects and draft picks for future years. Only one team is going to win the Stanley Cup this year, no matter who made moves at the deadline.
But to say the Wild didn’t make a move on February 28 is false. And to say they didn’t make an impact trade at the deadline may also be false, but it’s going to take a year or two to see if the Wild’s single trade on deadline day bears that high-scoring forward everyone wanted.
The very last trade of 2011 involved the Wild and the Boston Bruins, just minutes before the deadline passed. The Wild sent Houston Aeros goaltender Anton Khudobin for AHL defenseman Jeff Penner
, and a tall, lanky Finn currently piling up points in the Swedish Elite League: Mikko Lehtonen
When talking to Wild Assistant General Manager Brent Flahr about the deal, there’s no doubt Lehtonen was the centerpiece.
“When the offer was made, it was a no-brainer for us,” said Flahr, who noted that Khudobin’s time with the Wild was limited due to his impending unrestricted free agency and the quality of goaltending prospects throughout the organization.
But the “no-brainer” part was due to Lehtonen’s ability to rack up numbers, both in North America, and currently in the Swedish Elite League – arguably the best professional league outside of North America.
Prior to this season, Lehtonen spent two years with the American Hockey League’s Providence Bruins, Boston’s primary developmental affiliate. He pumped in 28 goals in his first year of North American hockey; he followed it up with a 23 goal output in 2009-10.
For his efforts, Lehtonen was rewarded with just one NHL game in each season with the Bruins. Frustrated, he signed with Skelleftea in Sweden, and the 23-year-old’s offense has continued to flourish. He finished the regular season as the Elite League’s top goal scorer with 30 markers and ranked second in total points with 58.
When Skelleftea’s playoff run is completed (they are in the second round after Lehtonen posted two goals and four assists in a first round series victory), Lehtonen is hoping to bring that offense back to North America, but this time at the NHL level.
“Of course that’s my goal,” he said. “I played two years in Providence and it was a really good two years, but I kind of felt I never got the chance to show my skills in the NHL. Obviously, [the trade] is a good chance to come over there.”
Both Lehtonen and Flahr said they’d wait until Skelleftea’s season is over before making a decision, but Flahr made it clear that Lehtonen has the upside that could benefit the Wild in the years to come.
“He’s a good-sized kid,” said Flahr of the 6-foot-3, 196 pounder. “He’s a good skater and he can score. He has hands. There are some things he has to learn away from the puck and defensively in his game and with the way the NHL game is played.
“But the things he can do are hard to find, and we’ll be open to giving him the chance to break through at the NHL level.”
Those “things” are obviously scoring goals. While Lehtonen seems modest typical of most Finns that have graced the Wild locker room, even he knows the facts are the facts.
“It’s always tough to give yourself a compliment, but the last three years I’ve been the best scorer on my team,” he said. “I see myself as a pretty hard working goal scorer.”
The description of Lehtonen on hockeysfuture.com would agree with his self-assessment, labeling him as “big, fast and skilled” and “making steady progress – and he should, as he is known to work hard in practice.”
But of course the big question about the big winger is whether or not he is ready to give the NHL another go. There doesn’t seem to be a doubt in his mind that he wants to, and he wants it to be in Minnesota.
“My big goal of course is to play in the NHL and this gives me the opportunity to come over and meet my goal.”
Should Lehtonen impress at training camp, the Wild roster may be stocked once again with Finnish talent. Mikael Granlund
, a first round pick in 2010, is expected to challenge for a roster spot, and we all know Mikko Koivu
and Niklas Backstrom
When Lehtonen gets his chance, we’ll see if the Wild really did make an impact trade at the deadline.