Maple Leafs get offensive with KHL free agent Petri Kontiola
Finally, a win for the Toronto Maple Leafs in free agency: the team has signed KHL star Petri Kontiola to a one-year deal.
It's a small victory, for sure. It's not like Dave Nonis bagged Joe Thornton or Jason Spezza to shore up Hogtown's woefully underskilled corps of centers. But in a free-agent market that's been stripped bare of talent down the middle, Toronto added a player with proven offensive skill who has a chance to be a significant upgrade over some of the lugs the team trotted out last season.
This won't be Kontiola's first kick at the NHL can, which you can be forgiven for having missed. A seventh-round pick of the Blackhawks back in 2004, the native of Finland got into 12 games with Chicago in 2007-08. It wasn't a bad debut -- he had five assists -- but Kontiola wasn't someone that the Blackhawks saw helping to turn their rebuilding club around. So Chicago sent him down to the AHL, where he dominated with the Rockford IceHogs and Iowa Chops, scoring 130 points in 147 games. When that wasn't enough to earn him another ticket to the show, Kontiola took his talents to the KHL, where he was nearly as impressive. He scored 63 goals and 175 points in 258 career games, including a 15-22-37 line in 53 games with Traktor Chelyabinsk last season.
Kontiola has been a force on the international stage as well, scoring 37 points in 46 games at the World Championship, and chipping in five points in six games for the bronze medal-winning Finns in Sochi.Kontiola brings a possession mindset to the Leafs. But can he translate his European success to the smaller surface and heavier contact of the NHL? No way of knowing, but the 29-year-old is a risk worth taking.
The question now is if this signing is a signal that Toronto is set at center, or is it the precursor to a trade, possibly involving Nazem Kadri. Kontiola's skill set doesn't suggest that he is a player who is well suited to a depth role. He's someone who runs your power play, but doesn't key your penalty kill, and he lacks the size and grit to successfully shift to the wing. Don't be surprised if another shoe drops.
And kudos to Mike Johnston for the joke we'll all wish we'd thought of first.
On Wednesday's SI Now, Sports Illustrated senior writer Brian Cazeneuve and reporter Sarah Kwak discuss the Western Conference's dominance in NHL free agency.