Jonathan Lekkerimäki’s first season in Sweden after being drafted by the Vancouver Canucks could not have gone much worse.
The Canucks’ 2022 first-round pick had a series of unfortunate events derail his season. It started with an offseason bout with mononucleosis that disrupted his training. That led to a slow start to the season in the HockeyAllsvenskan — Sweden’s second tier of professional hockey.
Then a hit to the head caused a concussion that kept him out for a time. When he got back on the ice to play for Sweden at the 2023 World Juniors, he struggled and was benched for long stretches as the team fell short of winning a medal.
Just when things were starting to come together in his return to the HockeyAllsvenskan, Lekkerimäki suffered a freak foot injury that ended his regular season.
The only glimmer of hope for Lekkerimäki is that he was able to return for the playoffs and finally performed like a first-round pick should, putting up 15 points in 15 games for Djurgårdens IF.
Still, it was a frustrating season that Lekkerimäki was eager to put behind him. This season, on a new team in a new league, he had an excellent opportunity to do so.
Lekkerimäki made an excellent impression on his new team, Örebro HK, in the SHL preseason and was put on the team’s second line in their first game on Thursday against Leksands IF. He was even a focal point of Örebro’s marketing, as the team hyped up the 19-year-old winger as a potential star.
That immediately paid off as Lekkerimäki scored Örebro’s first goal of the season.
Down 2-0 in the second period, Örebro earned a power play but couldn’t get anything with their first power play unit. That’s when Lekkerimäki came on with the second unit and finished off a passing play from his linemates, Robert Leino and Hannes Björninen.
Lekkerimäki’s shot is the biggest strength of his game but this goal was less about getting a heavy, accurate shot and more about the speed of his release. Lekkerimäki wasted no time getting the puck off his stick with a one-timed snap shot, going down on one knee and getting his stick out in front of his skates to meet the pass, ensuring the puck made its way to the back of the net as quickly as possible.
Beyond the goal, Lekkerimäki had a strong game away from the puck. He was solid in his own end of the ice and took smart routes on the forecheck to pressure the puck carrier.
On one forechecking sequence in the third period, he anticipated a reversed puck behind the opponent’s net and was quick enough to take the body on the Leksands defenceman before he could control the pass. Lekkerimäki then stole the puck and fed the point, leading to a long shift in the offensive zone.
It’s that type of positive off-puck play that was the most encouraging aspect of his first SHL game of the season. The better Lekkerimäki is away from the puck, the more opportunities he’ll get to unleash his excellent shot.
The one flub for Lekkerimäki came late in the game when Örebro had a one-goal lead. Lekkerimäki had a great opportunity to seal the game away with an empty-net goal, but whiffed on the puck after pulling up over the Leksands blue line.
On the positive side, Lekkerimäki didn’t bemoan his chance to score, but quickly tracked back and disrupted a neutral zone pass as Leksands attempted to counter-attack — another positive off-puck play for the young winger.
Overall, it was a great first game of the season for Lekkerimäki, who Canucks fans will follow with great interest this season.