KUOPIO, Finland – On December 1, KalPa Kuopio was in first place in the SM-liiga standings, and with former and current Finnish national team players like Sami Kapanen, Jukka Hentunen, Sakari Salminen, Kalle Kerman, and Jukka Voutilainen on the roster, that not may seem like a big surprise to the casual observer.
But look closer, and you'll see that Kapanen, Voutilainen, and Hentunen have missed half of the team’s games due to injuries, and Kerman has only nine points in 29 games. Salminen leads the team in scoring, followed by his linemate, and one of the biggest sensations in the SM-liiga this season: Artturi Lehkonen, 17.
Lehkonen left TPS Turku after last season, having made his SM-liiga debut there as a 16-year-old. He finished the season with four points in 18 games averaging under ten minutes a game. He also played 40 games with the TPS under-20 team, scored 54 points in 40 games, and led the team in scoring.
It was obvious already in the pre-season’s European Trophy that the hard work Lehkonen had put in during the summer was about to bear fruit as last season's U18 World Championship leading goal scorer led KalPa in scoring, with five goals, eight points in seven games.
And now, at about SM-liiga’s halfway point this season, he has eight goals and 19 points in 28 games, and is second in team scoring. He’s regularly skated on KalPa’s top line with Sakari Salminen, and most recently, the New York Rangers centre Derek Stepan.
“I got off to a great start in Kuopio, and got the chance to play with great linemates, which has helped me a lot. Stepan’s always close so I can make an easy pass,” Lehkonen told IIHF.com modestly after a recent home game.
“I’ll just try to keep it up for the rest of the season,” he said.
Lehkonen’s listed as 179 centimetres and 69 kilos, and while he may have added a few kilos since the official weigh-in, he’s still not much bigger than that. He is, though, a smart player who reads the game very well, and not all his passes are simple ones, regardless of what he says.
"He's full of surprises in the offensive zone, can score the big goals, and accelerates quickly, especially when in possession of the puck,” Göran Stubb, the NHL’s Director of European Scouting, told NHL.com as Central Scouting released their preliminary rankings for the 2013 draft.
Lehkonen’s transfer to Kuopio didn’t go completely under the radar, and not only because he’s an exceptional talent. His father, Ismo, is a high-profile coach and a hockey personality in Finland, who also has the dubious honour of holding the record for longest suspension for a coach in the SM-liiga.
The entire Lehkonen family moved to Kuopio to help Artturi on his path to become a star.
“KalPa really showed that they wanted me, and it seemed like a good fit for me. I’ve learned a lot here, about hockey and life, with all the great and more experienced players like Sami Kapanen and [Jukka] Hentunen around. They know what it takes to get to the next level,” Lehkonen said.
“Of course the move was a big deal. I mean, I left all my buddies in Turku, but moving around is a part of a hockey player’s life. So far it feels like it was all worth it, I have no regrets,” he added.
And why should he? What more could a 17-year-old hockey player want than to play in the top line of the top team in a top European league?
Well, maybe to play in the World U20 Championship. His father Ismo played in the under-18 European Championship, and his uncle Timo was a First Team All-Star goalie in the 1985 World Junior Championship. Lehkonen also wants to see Finland go deep in the tournament.
“It would be a great experience to get to play there, but it’s not guaranteed that I’ll make the team,” he said.
But when it is, Lehkonen is one of several great forwards on the Finnish team, a rare occasion for the country that’s famous for its goaltenders.
“It’s true that we have a lot of great forwards coming up, but it’s difficult to say why that is. I just know that “Sasha” [Barkov], Juuso [Ikonen] and I have always been sparring each other to get better,” Lehkonen said.
“We’re all second-generation elite players, so we’ve got a lot of tips and support from home, from our dads,” he added.
Barkov’s father, Aleksander Sr, played ten seasons with Tappara Tampere, won one Finnish championship, and played in three World Championships for Russia. Lehkonen’s father, Ismo, played over 100 games in the SM-liiga, and one U18 European championship. Ikonen’s father, Juha, was Kiekko-Espoo’s captain, played over 300 SM-liiga games and won silver with the men’s national team in the 1998 World Championship.
Add to that Miro Aaltonen and Thomas Nykopp - and goaltender Joonas Korpisalo - and you have a group of second-generation players whose fathers played over 1,500 SM-liiga games during their careers.
“Then we have [Joel] Armia, [Teuvo] Teräväinen and others,” Lehkonen added, and referred to the Buffalo Sabres first-round draft pick from 2011, Chicago’s first-round pick from 2012, and Markus Granlund, Calgary’s second-round pick in 2011.
“We do have a great team, and obviously, our goal is to get a medal,” Lehkonen said.
The shinier the better.