Gillian Kemmerer Gillian Kemmerer
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Mikko Lehtonen won the scoring race among KHL defensemen last year—if you can even call it that. The Finnish blue liner picked up 17 goals and 32 assists in his inaugural Russian season, a healthy cushion of 27 points from second-place finisher and newly-minted Ottawa Senator Artyom Zub. Jokerit's breakout star unsurprisingly garnered attention from overseas, inking a one-year contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs in early May of this year. As COVID-19 reshaped hockey schedules around the globe, Lehtonen returned to Jokerit on loan—his tape-to-tape passes and strong shot welcome arrows in the quiver of head coach Lauri Marjamäki.

A native of Turku, Finland and a 2014 World Juniors Champion, Lehtonen developed through his hometown club system of TPS. After a nearly two-year stint with Liiga’s KooKoo, he finished out the 2016-17 season with HV71 in Sweden and helped the club to pick up their fifth Le Mat Trophy. Lehtonen logged seasons with Tappara and HV71 prior to his KHL debut in 2019. He entered Jokerit as a newly-crowned World Champion, an experience that he described as a tailwind for his best professional showing to-date.

I spoke with Lehtonen as the team emerged from quarantine earlier this week. We discussed his stellar season, Jokerit’s chances and more from Helsinki.

Gillian Kemmerer (GK): Jokerit was quarantined and unable to practice for the past week. How did you handle the unexpected break, and how are you preparing to restart competition on Friday versus Sibir?

Mikko Lehtonen (ML): We trained by ourselves and tried to keep in good shape—all of the normal off-ice things like jogging, a little bit of biking. That kind of stuff. Actually it's hard to say yet, but I’ve felt pretty good on the ice and I'm really excited to get back to practice together with the guys. Hopefully this [break] can help us. We could rest a little bit, and now we're back and really excited to play. We’ve had two good practices with the team, and tomorrow is a little bit of an easier day. I think we are ready for Friday—so, no excuses.

GK: Plot twists have become the new normal in 2020. How did you handle training in quarantine all summer? 

ML: I did pretty normal stuff, actually. In the beginning when quarantine first started, it was a little bit tougher. I couldn't go to the gym and stuff, but summer practice was normal after all of that. I had the usual off-ice workouts at the gym, and I was practicing with my skating coach and with the guys in my hometown. I think I was in pretty good shape going into the season. I have had a couple of long seasons, so I actually had the time to rest and to keep my body in good condition.

GK: Jokerit beat Dinamo Riga, Neftekhimik by margin of a six prior to quarantine. Are you already noticing areas where the team may have upgraded from last season? 

ML: I don't think we had to make any major changes or anything. I think there's no big difference from last year. We have a couple of new faces and a few good players came in. I think we're a little bit better of a team [from last year], but a similar situation and the same coaching staff pretty much. I think that’s why it has been easy for everyone to fit in, because we already know how we have to play and stuff like that. So I think there's no big difference.

GK: Jokerit’s players may have been sidelined, but Jari Kurri was still making deals last week. How do you feel about the return of your captain, Peter Regin? 

ML: Yeah, it's nice to have him back and he's a great player, on the ice and off the ice. Being the captain of Jokerit, you have great character on this team. He can lead this group of guys really well, and it's a big thing to get him back.

GK: You led all KHL defensemen in goals and assists last season. I can imagine the expectations were pretty high walking into this locker room for round two. 

ML: [Laughs] I hope the expectations are not too big for me! But of course, I played a lot, so there are always high expectations for those guys who play a lot. I always want to push myself to play better and better. I expect myself to play good hockey and to be productive on the ice, and I think that the coaching staff is expecting the same things from me. I don't take on extra pressure or anything after a good season. I just want to keep doing it the same way.

GK: What factors contributed to your success? 

ML: I think that [Marjamäki] has let me play my style, and our system helps me to play that kind of hockey. Of course, we had such a good roster last year, and it was easy to play for this team. I think I experienced a snowball effect. The beginning of the season was pretty good, and my self-confidence got better and better all of the time. And I played with my strongest [skills]—a lot of skating, shooting, keeping the puck.

GK: Define your style more precisely. 

ML: I try to be a good two-way defenseman. Someone who can skate with the puck, make good plays, shoot the puck from the blue line and get pucks to the net. I try to be good in both ends.

GK: You played in Liiga before your arrival to the KHL. Obviously Jokerit is a Finnish team—so do you see a lot of Liiga’s style reflected there, or has the KHL made its imprint on Jokerit? 

ML: That’s a tough question. I do think that in the KHL, there’s a bit of a difference from Liiga games. The opponents are better and the hockey is a little bit faster, but it’s hard to say. All of the Russian players are pretty strong and pretty big, and there are a lot of good players in the KHL. I think it’s the best league in Europe, no question about that.

GK: Jokerit is one of the highest-scoring teams in the KHL. As Finnish systems often emphasize the forecheck, do you feel that some of your most interesting chances are generated from turnovers? 

ML: At Jokerit, we want to apply pressure a lot and play good offense, but first of all, we have to defend well before the offense. I think we have done a good job with that, and we have to keep going. Strong defense first, and then we can create offense in a good way. I think we are one of the teams in the KHL that presses opponents a lot, and I like that kind of hockey.

We create a lot of offense in turnovers, of course. We’re on offense right away when we get the puck from our opponents, and that's a big thing for us. But I think we can also create chances—keep the puck and create good offense with the long attacks, and stuff like that.

GK: Who would you like to be paired with? 

ML: There are so many good defensemen on our team. I played with Jonathan Pudas in the beginning of the season, and things felt pretty good with us. He's a skilled defenseman, so it's easy to play with him.

GK: Who are the toughest players to defend against in the KHL right now? 

MK: Hard to say because there are a whole lot of good players to play against, but let's say [Vadim] Shipachyov. Dmitrij Jaskin is pretty good too, he's strong. Shipachyov is skilled and he can pass really well. There is the fast and small guy, [Justin] Azevedo, in Kazan. I could name so many guys here, but these are a couple.

GK: Your head coach Lauri Marjamäki lamented the league’s decision to phase out Olympic-sized ice. He feels that the strength of Russian hockey lies in playing the puck, and it was better displayed on the larger surfaces. How do you feel about it? 

ML: I actually think it's more fun to play on smaller ice. The intensity is higher because you do not have that much time with the puck. The whole situation develops faster, and you have to be ready to play, with more battles and stuff like that. There are going to be more high-intensity games coming up, so it's fun.

GK: Both Marjamäki and the KHL’s smart puck system agree on one metric: your passing is laser-accurate. Was that a skill that coaches emphasized early on for you? 

ML: When I was younger, one of my coaches always said, ”If you can complete nine of ten passes, you can play in better leagues and on better teams." So I think it has always been a big thing in my game. You have to put it on the tape—and it’s hard to say how I practice it, there’s nothing special for that—but I just keep focused on passing.

GK: How much do you think that winning the World Championship impacted your mental resilience going into your best professional season? 

ML: I think a lot. I developed a lot of confidence after that. I saw how I could play against the best players in the world. There were a lot of good players in that tournament—Ovechkin, Kucherov. I realized my strengths and played the puck well, defended against those guys. I got a lot of self confidence from that tournament.

GK: How long did the celebrations last? I saw that you were invited to the Finnish President’s house. 

ML: I think it was pretty much one week, and we had a lot of fun times with the guys. That's a pretty big deal in Finland, if you get invited to the President's parties every year. It was a pretty big thing for me to get there.

GK: Were you nervous? You can’t exactly have ten Long Drinks and dance on the table… 

ML: It’s true. I was really a bit nervous before that. Everyone is watching you at that party, so you have to be really nice and happy there!

GK: Tell me about the true glory days: pee-wee hockey in Turku. 

ML: There are so many memories from when I was younger. [Turku] was a good city to play in because there were a lot of good players on our home team of TPS. My parents brought me to play hockey when I was three years old, and that’s where it all started.

GK: Your brother is playing professionally as well. Do you have some healthy competition within the family? 

ML: We actually played a lot of outdoor hockey when we were younger and battled a lot. We had a good group of guys when I was younger, playing outside—that was fun. We don’t play together [now], but we like to talk and we watch each other’s games. It’s fun to talk about hockey with your brother.

GK: Brian O’Neill has claimed the title of “Mr. Helsinki.” Are we worried about an American holding such a prestigious post in Finland? 

ML: [Laughs] No, it's fun that Brian has that. He's been here a long time and has played well every season. I think pretty much everybody likes him here in Helsinki, so that’s a good title for him.

GK: What do you do for fun? 

ML: I play golf. A lot of golf. It's pretty fun, and I get to hang out with my friends. That's my thing.

GK: Who is the best golfer on Jokerit—or are you obligated to name yourself here?

ML: No, I think I'm not the best—but Brian actually, O'Neill, he's a pretty good player. So maybe he's the best.

GK: So he's Mr. Golf AND Mr. Helsinki. 

ML: Exactly.

GK: What is a life lesson that you’ve learned from playing hockey? 

ML: Hard question again. I think it's good to remember that if you do everything you can, in the best way possible, you can achieve something. It doesn’t matter if we are practicing or playing games, I try to do my best every time. That’s the way I want to live in my normal life too. Do your best every day.

GK: The KHL is doing Spotify playlists, and I am assembling one for all of the interviewees of The Faceoff. Give me a song on your workout playlist right now.

ML: All of the Avicii songs are pretty good, I think. Wake Me Up, maybe, if I had to pick one.

GK: If the Gagarin Cup were determined by popular vote, give me a few reasons why we should pick Jokerit. 

ML: We're a really tight group of guys, and we have good chemistry on and off the ice—so maybe that's the biggest thing. I think we're also really good players, and we have really good systems to play. These are the reasons why we are going to win this year

Gillian Kemmerer Gillian Kemmerer
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