"I’m happy to stay in Montreal," the Finnish forward adds after signing a two-year deal worth $4.8 million and avoiding salary arbitration.
A lot was expected from Artturi Lehkonen after his impressive rookie season with the Canadiens.
Lehkonen posted 18-10-28 totals in 73 games during the 2016-17 season, finishing tied with Alexander Radulov for third on the team in goals, trailing only Max Pacioretty (35) and Paul Byron (22). Lehkonen’s 18 goals also ranked ninth among all NHL rookies that season.
But his goal production has dropped in each of the last two seasons, to 12 in 2017-18 and only 11 last season. That’s why Lehkonen had to settle for a two-year contract from the Canadiens on Thursday, avoiding salary arbitration. The deal is worth a total of US$4.8 million with a $2.4 million annual salary-cap hit. It’s a significant raise from the $925,000 Lehkonen earned last season in the third and final year of his NHL entry-level deal, but it could have been much more if he had produced offensively.
“I know I can still play a lot better than I showed last year,” Lehkonen said Friday during a conference call from Finland. “Of course, I wasn’t happy in my point production, basically, or how my goal stats were at the end of the year. So I know I still have a lot to prove.”
Lehkonen scored a goal in the season opener last year, but then went 17 games without a goal. He had seven goals after 38 games, but then went 29 games without scoring and was demoted to the fourth line. Lehkonen continued to play a strong 200-foot game, finishing the season with a plus-10 rating while averaging 15:33 of ice time. But the Canadiens needed more goals from the 6-foot, 177-pound left-winger and he couldn’t finish on the chances he got.
“I want to play better than I played last year and play good hockey,” said Lehkonen, who turned 24 on July 4.
“I’m happy with the two years,” he added about the new contract. “The only thing I had in mind going into this thing was to stay in Montreal, and I’m happy to stay in Montreal.”
Fellow Finn Joel Armia is also happy to be staying in Montreal after also signing a two-year deal with the Canadiens on Thursday, worth $5.2 million. Armia, 26, posted 13-10-23 totals in 57 games last season, setting a career high in goals and earning time on the power play.
“I’m really happy with the two years,” Armia, who earned US$1.85 million last season, said during the same conference call Friday from Finland. “I just try to play better every year.”
When asked if he has set any personal goals for next season, Armia said: “No. Just play good hockey. Our goal is to make the playoffs, of course. I liked our last year. The only thing I didn’t like last year is the fact that we didn’t make the playoffs. But I think we played really good. We didn’t make the playoffs, but that’s hockey. I think we just need to follow what we did last year.”
The Canadiens finished with a 44-30-8 record, coming up two points short of the final wild-card playoff spot in the Eastern Conference while making a 25-point improvement from the previous season.
“We came so close,” Lehkonen said. “We just got to be a little bit better next year and show what kind of team we are and we can really compete in every game.”
Lehkonen said he hadn’t spoken with fellow Finn Sebastian Aho. Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin tried to bring Aho to Montreal with a five-year, US$42.27-million offer sheet that was matched by the Carolina Hurricanes.
“I saw it happen and he’s a good player,” Lehkonen said. “It would have been nice to get him in Montreal, but it didn’t happen. So it is what it is.”
Lehkonen did speak with Andrew Shaw after the Canadiens traded the veteran forward to the Chicago Blackhawks on June 30 to clear salary-cap space. Shaw was one of the most popular players in the Canadiens locker room.
“Of course, it’s a bummer to see him go,” Lehkonen said. “But, I mean, that’s how it is … that’s how hockey is. Sometimes you see your friends go and you just got to move on from the situation. I can’t wait to play against him. That’s going to be fun.”
The Canadiens now have 24 players under contract for next season with $4.844 million remaining in salary-cap space, according to CapFriendly.com.