Photo credit:Tre Kronor on Twitter
Inside Canucks prospect Jonathan Lekkerimäki’s bounceback year as he gets set for a Gold Medal final
By Dave Hall1 month ago
Make no mistake, being drafted into the National Hockey League is undeniably one of the greatest honours a professional hockey player can achieve.
However, this prestigious accomplishment doesn’t come without its challenges — especially for those selected in the first round.
The level of pressure associated can vary depending on the organization that calls out your name, and being selected by the Vancouver Canucks may just be exhibit A.
The expectations and scrutiny that come with being the Canucks’ top prospect are as high as you will find in and around the league.
Just ask Jonathan Lekkerimäki, who was selected 15th overall in the 2022 draft: When things are good, they are great, but when things get tough, it can be tough sledding.
Lekkerimäki faced this harsh reality last year when he experienced a challenging draft-plus-one season plagued by injuries and a well-documented battle with mononucleosis.
His performance at the Allsvenskan level reflected that, as he managed only three goals and six points in 29 games. This was a significant contrast to his draft year, in which he not only excelled at the same level (35 points in 26 games) but also contributed nine points in the SHL as a 17-year-old.
For a sharpshooter who has carved out a career based on scoring goals, it’s easy to lose confidence, especially when a serious illness is added into the mix.
Despite playing all the way across the Atlantic Ocean, you could imagine the weight of expectations and pressure likely loomed over him every game.
Instead of succumbing to adversity, however, Lekkerimäki used his tough season as motivation to enhance his work ethic during the off-season.
“Last summer, I couldn’t work out as good as I could this year, so I feel more prepared this year. I think I can work harder and be more competitive this year because of the great summer training,” Lekkerimäki shared with Chris Faber of Canucks.com.
Well, so far, it appears that Lekkerimäki’s off-season dedication has indeed paid off. From the early stages of preseason, a transformed Lekkerimäki emerged, making a noticeable impact and offering hints at a return to his pre-draft form.
Impressively, he notched not just one, two or three, but four goals across seven exhibition matches, while skating primarily in a bottom-six role.
Of course, preseason performances often come with a hint of skepticism. The real tests arise when the regular season kicks in.
Yet, as meaningful games commenced, Lekkerimäki embraced a role on the third line for Örebro and wasted no time. He started strong, grabbing goals in each of his first three games, quickly earning a promotion up the lineup.
Eventually, he secured a top-line position in both even-strength and power-play situations.
What’s more telling was his role during critical moments, be it in the final minutes of regulation, overtime, or even shootouts, the offence was being filtered toward him—a responsibility typically uncommon for a 19-year-old player.
He may still be a teenager, but when it comes to scoring goals, he feels more like a veteran.
As of today, Lekkerimäki stands at the forefront among all U24 SHL skaters in both goals (10) and points (16), and sits fourth in team scoring (five points back), despite five fewer games during his World Junior absence.
This brings us to the World Juniors, where the pressure is at an all-time high.
Not only is an entire Canucks’ fan base putting his game under a microscope, with incredible expectations, but he’s receiving it from a national standpoint to boot.
You see, this year’s event is taking place in Gothenburg, Sweden, marking the seventh time that Sweden has hosted the prestigious tournament. Despite securing two silver medals and a bronze in previous editions, Sweden had never clinched the elusive gold at home.
This year, they have tailored their team for this specific reason, filled with tons of 19-year-old “veterans”, highlighted by Jonathan Lekkerimäki.
It’s been a challenge for Sweden in recent memory, having not been to the gold medal game since 2018, with Sweden’s last victory dating back to 2012. The recent disappointments include back-to-back eliminations in the semi-finals, both in which Lekkerimäki played a part.
Whether viewed as a first-round selection for the Vancouver Canucks or a 19-year-old seasoned member of the host team, who is expected to succeed, he shoulders the weight of the expectations as a key factor in the team’s offensive brigade.
Being part of back-to-back semi-final exits, Lekkerimäki is no stranger to heartbreak in this event. The stakes were high, and the pressure to deliver a strong and competitive tournament was immense.
“I think we have good chemistry on the power play, it’s going to be a lot of fun, and I’m going to go and do my thing there,” Lekkerimäki told Faber.
Oh boy, has he been doing his thing.
In almost every shift, he demonstrates intense focus and a commitment to contributing to the team’s success.
Whether it’s a crucial goal or a well-timed assist, the sharpshooting teenager has carried the weight for Sweden, leading the charge with points in each of the team’s six matches throughout the tournament.
His impact extends beyond the scoresheet, as he’s actively contributing with a strong forecheck and consistently bringing high effort levels in every game. Alongside his longtime friend and former teammate, Noah Östlund, Lekkerimäki has been instrumental in driving play and creating challenging situations for opponents.
However, it’s Lekkerimäki’s remarkable release, his bread-and-butter, that truly sets him apart, and it has been on full display during the holiday season.
He has now posted consecutive games with nine shots on target, resulting in an incredible tournament-leading 30 shots through six games.
In the tightly contested semi-final match against Czechia, none of Jonathan Lekkerimäki’s shots were more significant than the one that stood as the eventual game-winning goal against the very same team which ended his tournament just one year prior.
However, he didn’t stop there; just minutes later, Lekkerimäki provided strong defensive relief, while his fellow Canuck prospect, Tom Willander, slipped out of place, ensuring his team maintained their one-goal lead. He would later add a second goal, putting a bow on the match, catapulting them to the Gold Medal final.
While it’s important to note that it’s been a collective effort for Sweden, not only ranking second in the tournament for goals scored (25), second behind the high-scoring Americans but also the only team to concede fewer than 10 goals (9) and leading the way with three shutouts.
Much of the team’s success can be attributed to the outstanding play of undrafted goaltender Hugo Hävelid and the solid defensive unit, which features two Vancouver Canucks prospects, Tom Willander and Elias Pettersson – who also play pivotal roles in one of the tournament’s top penalty killing units.
With that said, Lekkerimäki has stood out individually, sharing the lead for goals scored (6), topping the field in power play tallies (4), and sitting second with 30 shots in the tournament.
With immense pressure focused on him in his final World Junior attempt, Lekkerimäki could have had every excuse to falter. Instead, he has not only delivered but thrived under the spotlight.
Team Sweden head coach Magnus Hävelid spoke to Elite Prospects‘ J.D. Burke, shedding light on Jonathan Lekkerimäki’s impressive performance in the tournament.
“He’s in great shape, has good confidence, and hopefully he has his best game tomorrow [Friday]”. He said, “He’s a key player, of course. He was so important to this game. He’s the guy who can be on the ice, take responsibility, and you know if you need him to score, he’ll score.”
The journey is far from over, and Sweden faces its toughest challenge yet as they prepare to square off against the high-powered Americans, who lead the tournament with 39 goals – 14 more than Sweden, who sit second.
Nevertheless, the Vancouver Canucks’ top prospect, Jonathan Lekkerimäki, can hold his head high, knowing that he has risen to the challenge throughout the tournament and regardless of the outcome in the upcoming match, his performances have been a source of pride for himself and his supporters.
The puck is set to drop at 10:30 AM (PST) in the Scandinavium in Gothenburg, Sweden.
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