DENVER — Joe Sakic was a dog on a bone and wasn’t going to give up.
Again and again and again and again, and well, again and again, his counterpart Kent Hughes rejected overtures for Artturi Lehkonen in the period leading up to the March 21 deadline.
“From the start, Lehkonen was a player we were looking at and I let Kent know that we were certainly interested,” the Colorado Avalanche GM said Tuesday. “We stayed in contact the whole way.”
But from the Montreal Canadiens GM’s perspective, it never really felt like it was going to be a thing until about 15 minutes to go at the deadline.
And that’s the impression he relayed to Lehkonen himself in the lead-up to the deadline.
“I’m remembering a conversation I had with him either the night before or two nights before the deadline,” Hughes said over the weekend. “We were leaving the rink and I said, ‘Lehky, are you hanging in there? I know your name is all over the place.’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ And he never asked me anything. He said, ‘I figured it was none of my business. This is a business and you’re going to do what you’re going to do.’
“I said, ‘I can tell you I’m not trying to trade you. We value you. But I can’t tell you I wouldn’t, either. It would have to be something really good.’ I’m pretty sure it was 24 hours later I called him back to say, ‘I just traded you.”’
Hughes says he began the conversation with Lehkonen after the trade by saying it was a deal they had to act on and that they would really miss him.
“But then I said, ‘I think there’s some good news. Let me ask you: If you were to pick where you would want to get traded to have the best chance at winning the Stanley Cup, where would you want to go?’
“He said, ‘Colorado.’ I said, ‘Colorado it is.”’
Lehkonen smiled Tuesday when he was re-told that story.
“That’s how it pretty much went down,” Lehkonen said during media day on the eve of the Stanley Cup Final.
“It was an interesting day for sure,” said Lehkonen. “I was just taking my pregame nap and then I got a call and I was just like, ‘OK, I got to get packing.’ But at the same time, it could be another shot at the Stanley Cup.”
A year ago, Lehkonen’s overtime goal against Vegas put the Habs into the Stanley Cup Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning. One year later, Lehkonen’s overtime goal against Edmonton put the Avs in the Cup Final against, well, the Lightning again. This time he’s hoping for a different end result.
“Kind of like a rematch for me. I’m excited for sure,” said Lehkonen.
Traded for 2020 first-round pick Justin Barron plus a second-round pick, Lehkonen has delivered and then some for the Avs, putting up 11 points (6-5) in 14 playoff games and playing the kind of grinding, two-way game that Sakic felt would be a valuable ingredient to add to his stacked team.
“We were watching Montreal quite a bit,” Sakic said. “And he was definitely on our radar for what type of player we were looking at. He’s been everything that we thought he would be. First of all, a great person. He works extremely hard. He’s versatile. He can play anywhere up and down your lineup.
“He’s got a motor on him and he never takes a shift off. He’s been a great fit. One of those guys, he’s really smart, really competitive, knows who he is. Just love the way he competes.”
Star countryman Mikko Rantanen’s eyes lit up Tuesday when asked about Lehkonen.
“He’s been awesome,” said Rantanen. “He’s been really good. I’ve known since he was a kid that he’s always been a gamer, especially in the playoffs. With Montreal, too, he was great. He’s been scoring big goals for us, he goes to the hard areas. He’s not scared of anything even though he’s not the biggest guy.
“And a great loose-room guy, too.”
What’s crazy, again, is how close Lehkonen came to not being traded. This wasn’t about Montreal waiting until the last moment to take Colorado’s best offer. The Avs had to improve the offer or else Hughes insists he most probably wasn’t moving him.
“Joe was just pretty consistent, checking in, saying, ‘would you consider this?’ And I was pretty consistent in saying no,” said Hughes. “There were other teams that had called and required as well. I told them it would take a lot for us to trade him. He’s good, he’s young.”
But at the end of the day, as much as Hughes didn’t want to trade Lehkonen, there was a price threshold and if a team met it, he would have to go through with it. For the longest time, the Avs were only willing to move one asset — I believe Colorado was trying to get Lehkonen one-for-one for Barron. The clincher came within the last 15-20 minutes before the deadline when Colorado finally relented and grudgingly gave up the second-round pick. So the Habs essentially got a first (2020) and a second (2024) for Lehkonen. Couldn’t pass that up.
The Rangers and Caps are believed to be among the other teams that also inquired on Lehkonen, but no team pressed like Colorado.
“Joe just checked in pretty regularly on it,” Hughes said. “I was almost embarrassed because I kept saying ‘No.”’
Hughes wouldn’t confirm this but I’m told at one point there’s a player he asked for on Colorado to up the ante in his talks with the Avs. That got a clear ‘No’ in return from Sakic.
Eventually, they found the middle ground. Right at the very end.
“Joe did it the right way. He kept it alive and eventually it just got done,” Hughes said.
Said Sakic: “He was a guy that — if they were willing to move, especially since he’s not a UFA, so we got at least a two-year run with him and hopefully more with him, so I think that was important, too — he was a guy that we felt could fit in well now but also moving forward.”
Breaking the news to Lehkonen that he was dealing wasn’t easy for Hughes. Neither was having to tell the head coach. Martin St.Louis was crushed.
Hughes says the coaching staff was also disappointed to lose Brett Kulak earlier in the day on deadline day.
“I went down to tell them we traded Kulak and the coaches’ room was down,” Hughes said. “Then I said, ‘Well the good news is, we’re not trading Lehky.’ I think we traded Lehky like 15 minutes before the deadline. I went back up to my office and Joe called back again. And then I was like, ‘Oh my God, I think at this point we have to do it.’
“I went back down (to the coaches’ room) and said, ‘I lied,”’ Hughes says with a chuckle now.
It shapes up to be what both GMs feel could truly pay off for both clubs.
“That’s what you’re looking to do, for both teams to be happy. We gave up a pretty good young prospect who’s going to play a long time,” Sakic said of Barron. “But for us, it’s about now and (we) also know we can move forward with Lehkonen.”
A win-win trade, perhaps.
“We’re happy with what we got and we’re happy that he’s having success,” Hughes said. “And happy for Colorado, too.”
(Photo of Artturi Lehkonen celebrating with Logan O’Connor and Devon Toews: Walter Tychnowicz / USA Today)