How Canucks top prospect Lekkerimäki turned his season around

May 3 2023, 7:09 pm

If you listen carefully, you may hear the collective sigh of relief from Vancouver Canucks fans. Jonathan Lekkerimäki has arrived.

After a nightmare regular season saw the Canucks’ most recent first-round draft pick only produce nine points in 29 games in HockeyAllsvenskan, Sweden’s second-division pro league, many had already written off the 18-year-old prospect. A season-ending foot injury in February seemed like an unfair, brutal end to a season that started with limited training and a bout of mononucleosis. 

Fast forward to the present day and things couldn’t be more different. Lekkerimäki recovered from his foot injury and joined Djurgårdens IF in their playoff bid to be promoted back to the Swedish Hockey League. With time off to heal, train, and rebuild confidence, this version of Lekkerimäki was more akin to what evaluators saw in his draft season, a player who could make an impact every time he touched the puck. 

While Djurgårdens IF came up one game short of promotion, losing to MoDo in Game 7, Lekkerimäki can still come away satisfied with how he performed individually. The 5-foot-11, 172-pound winger managed to land fifth in overall playoff scoring, producing 15 points in 15 games. 

This version of Lekkerimäki is dynamic, engaged, and dangerous — all the qualities that had the Canucks so bullish on him when they selected him last July. 

Dynamic in transition

A constant threat to beat defenders one-on-one in transition, Lekkerimäki caused fits for his opponents when he attacked them with speed and blended his hands. Able to punish aggression with deft, small-area handles, working to attack the back and exploit the momentum of defenders, the 15th-overall draft pick worked numerous eye-popping entries into the offensive zone. 

What was apparent right away was how Lekkerimäki was leveraging deception to create better shot opportunities. The Swedish forward was consistently shooting through defencemen triangles — the area between their stick and the ice, to use them as a screen and hide his release. Goaltenders are too big and skilled to be beaten clean on a volume of chances, so it’s encouraging to see this level of thought going into his shot attempts.

Add in smart lateral pushes, hip-pocket-protected pucks, and angle-changing releases, and Lekkerimäki was a downright threat working north to south. 

The other transitional element that was on full display was Lekkerimäki’s playmaking.

Smart players who possess dangerous shooting skill often learn to leverage that into playmaking opportunities. This was the case with Lekkerimäki in the 2023 Allvesnskan qualifiers. Often followed after a flashy handle to beat a defender on the entry, Lekkerimäki pushed an inordinate amount of passing ability. One-touch passes, slips, hooks, and saucers, often through layers of opponents, he was funneling a lot of pucks to the inside of the ice — qualities necessary to produce at the NHL level.  

Seeing Lekkerimäki not only pull off high-end handles in large-ice but also execute after has been a rather earth-shattering change compared to his regular-season club play. It’s almost as if he emerged from his cocoon after injury and started to float like a butterfly. 

New-found engagement

One of the more shocking parts of Lekkerimäki’s game this season that came to a head at the 2022 World Junior Championships was how low his engagement was off-puck. When diving into the Huddinge-born winger’s tape these playoffs, it was shocking how different that has been in the past weeks. 

Not only was Lekkerimäki a strong forechecking presence, but he was also disrupting possessions, flexing his anticipation to intercept pucks in passing lanes, and translating that into instant counter-attacking sequences. His pressure pushing was impactful, allowed for more offensive touches, and in turn, helped round out his game in the playoffs. 

In addition, Lekkerimäki played a more translatable game along the boards. Before this playoff stint, he was frankly soft on the perimeter of the ice, making limited, if any, forays into the middle of the ice.

Now, we see an immense amount of skill blending, all in an effort to shake off pressure and work pucks into the middle. Cutbacks, shoulder shakes, change in direction from his feet, and puck protection all blended together to make him fairly elusive with pressure on his back.

The confidence to try forays into the slot was also present, something that was seldom there earlier in the year. 

Smaller and slighter players can operate in professional leagues as long as they integrate elusiveness to shake off aggressive pressure. Imagine a rabbit bounding back and forth to escape a hawk — changes in direction are so key. 

Improved hockey sense

Finally, Lekkerimäki is showing much more sense as an off-puck shooting threat.

If you had watched him play at the World Juniors or any of his club play earlier in the season, you would have an understanding of why Lekkerimäki’s play was much maligned by evaluators. He didn’t move into open lanes, was behind the developing play, and was essentially not utilized, despite being in a prime scoring area.

These previous habits just do not exist anymore. Lekkerimäki is almost in perpetual motion, adjusting up and down to work into open pass seams. He’s set to shoot, sneaks behind coverages, and plants his stick as a tangible pass option.   

He’s even creating at a much higher level of the cycle with his heightened movement. He rotates constantly to support the puck carrier, eats up available space downhill while on puck, and floats into high-danger areas ready to unleash his shot.   

What’s next?

Lekkerimäki’s playoff resurgence represents a positive story at the end of the day, while also providing a lesson that coming to swift conclusions about 18-year-old prospects is probably not the best bet. Significant hurdles cannot be simply understated or swept under the rug when evaluating such young players. Nevertheless, it will be on the young Swede to continue this level of play next season, wherever that may be. 

With Djurgårdens IF going back to the Allsvenskan next season, Lekkerimäki’s future remains unclear right now. The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler reported that some of the club’s prospects have out-clauses in their contracts if the team failed to make it to the SHL — the current reality for Lekkerimäki. Players of his archetype need more time to develop, so do not be surprised if we are following him from across the pond for another season.

But as it stands, for now, Canucks fans can be happy with how the club’s presumptive top prospect persevered in the light of an enormous amount of adversity and hold solace that a high-end player is on the way.   

Daniel GeeDaniel Gee

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