Recently, Jokerit's boss Jari Kurri told Sport-Express that the move of his team to the KHL was a big step forward because – among other things – it allowed the fans to enjoy top players in their home country. If Jokerit wasn't playing in the KHL, Kurri said, only two or three players from the current roster would be part of the team. Most likely, Mikko Lehtonen falls within this concept. In his first season in the KHL, the 25-years-old has already scored 20 (8+12) points in 32 games. Naturally, such performance rarely goes unnoticed, and Lehtonen was awarded multiple times Defenseman of the Week honors and was also the best blueliner in November as assigned by the League. Lehtonen not only leads all the Jokerit defensemen in scoring, but also in average time on ice and trails only Alex Grant for the best plus/minus rating. Overall, only Brian O'Neill scored more points for the Finnish side. Lehtonen also skated with Team Finland at the recent Karjala Cup, where the Finns surrendered only to Team Czech Republic.
Mikko Lehtonen was born in Turku, a city on the southwest coast of Finland and a hockey hotbed. Home of the renowned TPS hockey brand, the place produced some of the most exceptional talents to ever come from the country, like the Koivu brothers, Kaapo Kakko, Petteri Nummelin, Sami Salo, and Rasmus Ristolainen. Lehtonen played for TPS since his junior years, trying to follow the footsteps of the numerous fantastic defensemen that carved the history of the team. He got his first taste of pro hockey in the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons, after which he played a full season in the Finnish second-tier league. Representing TUTO Hockey, Lehtonen helped team Finland to win gold at the 2014 WJC in Sweden. However, Lehtonen eventually broke out with another team in the Finnish league, KooKoo, based in Kouvola, close to Helsinki.
In 2016-17, Lehtonen was having a strong season with KooKoo, being once again one of his team's top scorers. Later in the season, he moved up and signed a deal with HV71 in Sweden, where he will help the SHL title. The defenseman returned to Finland for the 2017-18 season, signing with Tappara and ending the campaign as the runner up with Karpat claiming its 8th Kanada Malja trophy. Building on his excellent play, Lehtonen represented the Jatkoaika at the 2018 South Korea Olympics.
After adding a Finnish medal to his hardware collection, Lehtonen returned to HV71, trying to repeat their 2017 triumph. In Jonkoping, he found a stacked roster, led by the current Admiral's center Markus Ljungh and other players with significant experience abroad like Simon Onerud, Mattias Tedenby, and Andreas Thuresson. However, HV71 didn't repeat the feat, losing 4-3 to Farjestad in the quarterfinals. Lehtonen was in excellent shape and played in most of the EHT stages with the national team, and was selected as an alternate captain at the 2019 IIHF World Championship in Slovakia. There, the Finns will defeat Team Russia in the finals, and Lehtonen was one of the best for his team, scoring 7 (1+6) points in 10 games and ending up in the tournament's media all-stars.
After his strong season with HV71, where he was one of the top defensemen in the league for logged time on ice, it was clear that it would have been just a matter of time before seeing Lehtonen in the KHL. And before the 2019 IIHF WC, he inked with Jokerit a deal that will see him in the Finnish capital for the next two seasons. "Lehtonen is a modern, international-level player with excellent skating, strong puckhandling, and an active style of play," Kurri told Jokerit's official site announcing the signing of the blueliner. "He's ready to play the best hockey of his career in Jokerit, and we are very pleased to have him joining our team."
With more and more players of Lehtonen's level, Jokerit is capable of achieving a lot in the KHL. As the team's rocky start is behind its shoulders, the team's bench boss has a precious option on the blue line with Mikko Lehtonen, and a good number of alternatives throughout his lineup. Last year, the Jokers suffered from a disappointing first-round exit by the hand of Dynamo Moscow. But last year, Lehtonen was playing with HV71. Considering the team's recent results, and Lehtonen's play of late, Jokerit has everything it takes to go deep in the Western Conference playoffs.