The way the large talented forwards are making their way to the Boston Bruins, you might suspect the organization is growing them on trees.
Blake Wheeler made the big club out of training camp as a rookie. In his second year of pro hockey, Byron Bitz has carved out his niche on the Boston fourth line. Who’s the next large winger that could make his way up the pipeline from Providence (AHL) to the Hub? It just might be Finnish phenom Mikko Lehtonen, who in his first year of North American pro hockey currently stands fifth on the P-Bruins with 38 points and first with 21 goals.
The 6-foot-3, 196-pound Lehtonen obviously began to settle into the North American game in February, as he erupted for eight goals and five assists in 12 games.
“The whole team has been playing pretty good, so you get your chances and you just have to score,” Lehtonen recently told TheBruinsBlog.net. “And I’ve been pretty lucky getting good chances. I’m trying to shoot the puck a lot, so that leads to goals.”
Lehtonen’s strong play has helped the P-Bruins continue their excellent play, with a 1-1-0-1 record in the first four games of their eight-game road trip. Providence currently stands first in the Atlantic Division with a 34-22-2-3 record.
A third-round pick by Boston in 2005, Lehtonen needed to break one major bad habit at the outset of the season to start making a positive impact for Providence.
“I think overall his game has really improved. His defensive awareness. Early in the season, he loved going back with the puck in the zone,” Providence head coach Rob Murray explained before his team left on its lengthy road trip. “And I think, in the European game — when they trap, they high trap — you do that here, especially at the American League level, guys are on you, you can’t do that. He got away from that and now he’s been a lot more responsible.”
On the ice wasn’t the only place Lehtonen had to make adjustments. His off-ice life in a new country started out like a roller coaster, but he leaned on his countryman Tuukka Rask to help get him through.
“There was a little problems at first, of course. But we have Tuukka here who helped me a lot. Every day I asked him something. But now I’ve been here six, seven months, so now everything is set up,” he said.
And that’s helped Lehtonen focus all his energy to on-ice endeavors. He’s still trying to get better at protecting the puck the way his former P-Bruins teammate, the 6-5 Bitz, does. Plus there are other ways Lehtonen has to improve as far as using his size as a weapon.
“We worked on, preached to him – what a lot of guys don’t realize – basically, if you get a guy on your hip, a guy his size and reach should be able to walk right out of the corners,” Murray said.
Said Lehtonen: “I’m getting there. I’m trying to get better. Especially here in the corners, you have to use your size and strength. I’m trying to improve that.”
Already this season, Lehtonen has improved his game, so there’s no reason to doubt his game will continue on an upward progression. That could move him up the organization depth chart as soon as next season.