The Toronto Maple Leafs didn't make any big splashes in free agency, but a minor move made Thursday very well could pay off at minimal cost. The club has agreed to terms with 29-year-old Finnish center Petri Kontiola, who has been starring in the KHL for the past six seasons, according to Chris Johnston of Sportsnet.ca. He comes at low risk with a one-year, $1.1 million deal after securing his release from KHL club Traktor Chelyabinsk.
Kontiola is a former seventh-round pick of the Chicago Blackhawks. He appeared in 12 games in 2007-08 and notched five assists and had two extremely productive seasons in the American Hockey League with the Rockford IceHogs and Iowa Chops. He put up 130 points in 147 games in the minors.
When NHL opportunities escaped him, he left North America for the more lucrative pastures of the KHL, spending two seasons with Metallurg Magnitogorsk before signing with Traktor.
He posted 175 points including 112 assists in 258 career games in the KHL and was twice named to the league's all-star game. Additionally, Kontiola was the leading scorer of the 2013 Gagarin Cup playoffs with 19 points. Traktor fell just short in the final that year.
Kontiola has done a lot of damage internationally as well with 37 points in 46 career games at the IIHF Men's World Championship and he has two silver medals from the event. He was also part of the Finnish Olympic team at the 2014 Winter Games and had five points in six contests as the Finns took bronze.
It's fair to wonder if all of his success outside of the NHL will translate, but a one-year deal is worth making to find out. The Maple Leafs have a need for more skill at center and considering how much it would have cost to keep Dave Bolland in Toronto, the Leafs have a chance to possibly upgrade at a far lower cost.
Considering Kontiola has a lot of skill and at 29 may just be hitting his stride as a professional, there's little reason not to take a chance on him.
With such a thin market in free agency at center, many were signing for dollars too rich to work for the Maple Leafs. Going with an under-the-radar option is outside of the box and coming from an organization that has been almost too predictable in their player personnel decisions, this comes as a breath of fresh air.
He was good enough to make Finland's Olympic team and contributed to a medal just last year. He had one of his best years as a professional two years ago as well, but still produced on a weakened Traktor team last season. There's a chance he gets to the NHL and doesn't make the adjustment and falls flat on his face, but no team will know until he actually gets the chance.
The Maple Leafs, who struggled to control the puck in any fashion last season add skill to a position of need. There's upside in this contract. Now it's up for Kontiola to make the most of it.
Also, he should be able to handle the Toronto media pretty well ...
This, from the 2014 World Championship, remains one of the most painful intermission interviews ever given. That should go over well in Canada if it ever repeats itself.