Jonathan Lekkerimäki won’t be coming over to play with the Vancouver Canucks next season but, when he does, he’s excited about the possibility of playing on the same team — if not the same line — as Elias Pettersson.
“He’s one of my idols, so it feels unbelievable,” gushed Lekkerimäki, or at least the closest the staid Swede came to gushing during Monday’s media availability.
"He had to deal with a lot of adversity this past year."
Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. A bout with mononucleosis derailed his off-season training. He had a slow start to his HockeyAllsvenskan season, then suffered a concussion from a hit to the head. Expected to be a top player for Sweden at the 2023 World Juniors, Lekkerimäki instead struggled and was benched for long stretches.
Then, just as Lekkerimäki was starting to put his game together for Djurgården, he suffered a freak foot injury in practice that ended his season. You might even say that it put his season out of its misery.
“Each player’s development path is different and in Jonathan’s case, he had to deal with a lot of adversity this past year,” said Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin in a press release. “But with each challenge he faced, he found a way to learn and grow. With the help of our staff, we will find the best path forward for him and we look forward to Jonathan joining our development camp in July.”
But then a funny thing happened: when the HockeyAllsvenskan playoffs began, Lekkerimäki returned from his injury looking like a completely different player. After managing just 9 points in 29 games during the regular season, Lekkerimäki was one of the top scorers in the playoffs with 15 points in 15 games, good for fifth in the HockeyAllsvenskan.
While that wasn’t quite enough to help Djurgårdens promote back up to the SHL, it was still an encouraging sign for Lekkerimäki’s potential.
"I was thinking too much in the beginning of the season."
On Monday, Lekkerimäki said that the foot injury that ended his regular season actually ended up helping him and he agreed with the suggestion that it gave him time to reflect on what had gone wrong.
“Yeah, I think so. And it helped me with the off-ice training,” said Lekkerimäki. “I can push the off-ice training and come back stronger. So, I think it helped.”
While Lekkerimäki dealt with all sorts of physical obstacles during the regular season, it was ultimately a mental obstacle that was holding him back. Whether it was the physical ailments or the pressure of performing as a top prospect, Lekkerimäki was in his own head too much during the regular season. During the playoffs, he finally loosened up and got his confidence back.
“I think to just go out and play and don't think so much,” said Lekkerimäki about what changed for him in the playoffs. “I was thinking too much in the beginning of the season, and in the playoffs, just go with the flow and just play.”
Confidence is everything in hockey as it’s simply too fast a game to be constantly thinking about every facet of the game. Instead, players have to trust their instincts and the habits that have been drilled into them through practice and repetition.
For Lekkerimäki, it wasn’t just the points. He was better away from the puck as well. During the season, he was far too passive both offensively and defensively when he didn’t have the puck on his stick. In the playoffs, he was quicker on the forecheck, more active in seeking out open ice to support the play, and more involved defensively.
As a result, Lekkerimäki carried a 56.25% corsi through the playoffs, good for fourth on Djurgården. He wasn’t playing limited minutes either, as he averaged 17:17 per game in ice time.
"I want to be faster."
Lekkerimäki said that he’s been working with Mikael Samuelsson all season. Samuelsson was brought in as part of the Canucks’ prospect development department last year and was based in Stockholm, Sweden to work with the Canucks’ European prospects.
“He helped me a lot and I like it very much,” said Lekkerimäki, saying that Samuelsson helped him “get stronger on the puck and win puck battles against the boards.”
The work that he put in showed in the playoffs, as he was elusive along the boards, using quick turns and strong body position to protect the puck and open up space to make plays. Still, getting stronger this offseason will be a priority said Lekkerimäki, who is still on the lighter side. He’s also looking to take a step forward with his skating or at least make his initial steps forward a bit more explosive.
“Of course, I want to be faster. Maybe the first three steps,” said Lekkerimäki. “I think I have good skating, but of course, it can be better.”
Lekkerimäki will spend another season in Sweden, likely looking for a team in the SHL after Djurgården failed to earn a promotion to the top league. As for when Canucks fans can expect to see him, Lekkerimäki hedged his bets.
“Maybe two years, maybe one year?” he said. “I don't know. But I think I have to get bigger and better. So, we will see.”