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Canucks’ top pick Lekkerimaki aims to put adversity behind him to grow as a player

Swedish forward signed his entry-level three-year deal over the weekend
Canada’s goaltender Thomas Milic, left, stretches to make a pad save on Sweden’s Jonathan Lekkerimaki during second period IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship action in Halifax, Saturday, Dec. 31, 2022. The Vancouver Canucks’ top draft pick from 2022 says he’s looking to develop and put last season’s illness and injury struggles behind him. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese

Vancouver Canucks prospect Jonathan Lekkerimaki admits he wasn’t ready for a season of adversity but says he came out of it a better player.

Lekkerimaki, who plays right wing, was picked 15th overall in the first round of the 2022 NHL draft by the Canucks.

He signed an entry-level three-year deal with the Canucks over the weekend.

The Swedish forward suffered a season-ending foot injury in February but returned to help Djurgardens IF reach Game 7 of the HockeyAllsvenskan championship series.

The injury was the last in a series of setbacks to plague Lekkerimaki. He struggled to find success in the 2022-23 regular season as he recorded just nine points in 29 regular season games.

He also dealt with mononucleosis, commonly known as mono, and a concussion during the season.

“I wasn’t ready but I think I handled it good and it went pretty well in the playoffs,” he told reporters during a media availability.

The foot injury forced him to re-evaluate the way he played and how it could change.

“It helped me with my off-ice training and helped me come back stronger,” he said.

The resulting time off and re-evaluation resulted in five goals and 10 assists in 15 playoff games in Sweden’s second-division pro league.

“I think I was thinking too much at the beginning of the season and in the playoffs (it) was go with the flow and just play,” Lekkerimaki said.

Vancouver general manager Patrik Allvin praised the young forward’s determination to bounce back.

“Each player’s development path is different and, in Jonathan’s case, he had to deal with a lot of adversity this past year,” Allvin said in a statement announcing Lekkerimaki’s contract. “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.”

Former Canuck Mikael Samuelsson now works in player development for Vancouver and Lekkerimaki said he’s worked with him to improve a few aspects of his game.

“He helped me a lot,” Lekkerimaki said. “(He helped) me with getting stronger on the puck and winning puck battles along the boards.”

Samuelsson also played right wing and spent 2009-11 with the Canucks before being dealt to the Florida Panthers in the trade for David Booth. He also played for Djurgardens IF before retiring.

Lekkerimaki said he expects to spend at least next season playing in Sweden to further develop as a player before making the move to North America.

He added that it could be up to two years until he’s ready to play for the team that drafted him.

“I think I have to get bigger and better,” Lekkerimaki said when asked about what he needs to make the switch to Vancouver.

—Nick Wells, The Canadian Press

READ MORE: Canucks take Swedish right-winger Jonathan Lekkerimaki in 1st round of NHL draft