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Pens' Letestu a surprise at top of rookie scoring race

Sunday, 10.31.2010 / 12:15 PM / NHL Insider

By Adam Kimelman - NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor

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Pens' Letestu a surprise at top of rookie scoring race
It's a safe assumption that nobody's preseason Calder prediction list had Mark Letestu on it, but the Penguins forward is No. 2 in the rookie scoring race one month into the season
It's a pretty easy assumption to make that any list of preseason Calder candidates did not include Pittsburgh Penguins forward Mark Letestu.

But one month into the season, the 25-year-old is No.2 in the rookie scoring list with 4 goals and 7 points. Only Edmonton's hot-shot youngster, Jordan Eberle (8 points) is better. It's a spot even Letestu can't even believe he's in.

"No. Never. Ever," said Letestu when NHL.com asked him if he expected to have this much of an early offensive impact.

Letestu didn't expect a whole lot going into the season, but he got a chance when Jordan Staal's surgically repaired foot wasn't ready to go when training camp opened.

"Going into camp, I knew there were 13 forwards on one-way contracts, so I knew it would be a bit of an uphill battle," he told NHL.com. "But Staalsie had a setback and there was a crack to make the team."

"The thing with Mark is he's got a real good release on his shot," Penguins GM Ray Shero told NHL.com. "He's an awkward-type of skater but he's quick. He's got great hockey sense, he's very good positionally, knows our system well, knows the game well. Hopefully he's just a late bloomer -- obviously time will tell. But he's off to a good start."

He started the season on the fourth line, but all his success has seen him bumped up to the second line, where he's been centering Mike Comrie and Evgeni Malkin

"From what I see, he is very smart, has great position every time and can score some goals because of his (positioning) and play with the puck," said Malkin. "And he has a very good shot -- no, a great shot."

With Staal nearing a return, it looks like Letestu will stick with the Pens -- but on the wing instead of at center. He's been staying after practice working with assistant coach Tony Granato on learning the position.

"It's an adjustment," Letestu said, "but the coaches are confident I can do it. I'm going to give it a try."

"Right now, he has done a great job at center. ... If he could be an offensive player and a threat (on the wing), you may look to get him in that position when Jordan comes back," coach Dan Bylsma told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "But if he continues to play center like he is right now, he may make a bid for a third-line center position and solidify that."

For an undrafted free agent who's spent most of the last three seasons in the minor leagues, Letestu will do just about anything to stay in the NHL.

"I'll play goal if I have to," he said.

It's safe to say Marc-Andre Fleury and Brent Johnson aren't worried about Letestu stealing their jobs.

Letestu isn't the only rookie off to a strong start. NHL.com takes a look at six other rookies starting the 2010-11 season at a blistering pace:

Tyler Ennis, LW, Sabres -- Don't let the Buffalo forward's 5-foot-9, 167-pound stature fool you -- he's got a man's game.

Ennis is tied for second with Letestu and Carolina's Jeff Skinner in the rookie scoring race with 7 points, and his 5 assists is just one behind leader P.K. Subban, a Montreal Canadiens defenseman.

Ennis actually got his first taste of the NHL life last season, when he had 9 points in 10 games and then had a goal and 4 points in the Sabres' first-round playoff series.

"He has confidence in himself and his abilities," teammate Mike Grier told the Buffalo News. "He's never in awe of a situation. I don't think I've ever seen a situation where he doesn't think he can succeed. He thinks he's going to go in there and beat the guy and score. He wants the puck. In a lot of young guys, that's rare."

John Carlson, D, Capitals -- After a remarkable first professional season, the Washington blueliner has settled into a full-time NHL player.

To recap: Carlson scored the gold-medal winning goal for the U.S. at the World Junior Championship, scored the Calder Cup-winning goal for AHL Hershey, and in between had a stellar NHL debut that saw him score 6 points with a plus-11 rating in 22 regular-season games, and 4 points and a plus-6 rating in seven Stanley Cup Playoff games.

Things haven't gone as perfect this season, but he's tied for second among all rookies with 5 assists, tied for third with 6 points and he's second among Capitals defenseman in ice time at 21:35 per game.

"He's been a little frustrated and not happy with the way he's playing, but you look at it and he's still putting up the points and we're winning," Capitals assistant coach Bob Woods told CSN Washington.com. "It is just a learning step for him. This is his first full-time up here and again he's playing a lot and in a lot of key situations. He has expectations, too -- he wants to be as good as we think he can be. You see signs of it and then you see signs of his youth, but he is going to keep improving."

P.K. Subban, D, Canadiens -- After the run he had last spring, fans have to remember the Montreal defenseman entered this season as a 21-year-old rookie with two games of regular-season NHL experience.

Subban's superlative Stanley Cup Playoffs saw him score 8 points in 14 games, play to a plus-2 rating and average 20:44 of ice time per game.

While Subban's offensive abilities never have been a question -- he's always been among the highest-scoring defensemen in whatever league he played in -- the concern was about his commitment to playing well in his own zone.

"P.K. has some good qualities with the puck," Canadiens coach Jacques Martin said during training camp. "But he has to find a happy medium in terms of when to support the attack and when to focus on defense."

So far, Subban has a rookie-best 6 assists in 10 games, but is a plus-5, best among all rookies and second among Montreal's blueliners, while topping all rookies at 21:52 of ice time per game.

Jordan Eberle, RW, Oilers -- The leader of the Oilers' trio of rookie hopefuls announced himself  Opening Night, when his toe drag and backhand under the crossbar against Flames All-Star Miikka Kiprusoff set the bar for Goal of the Year candidacy.

He's been far from a one-trick pony, however. Eberle has 4 goals, 8 points and a plus-2 rating in nine games, leads all rookie forwards with an average ice time of 18:45 per game and plays more than two minutes per game on the Oilers' power-play and penalty-killing units.

Tyler Seguin, C, Bruins -- The 18-year-old certainly has a knack for scoring in big moments. His first NHL goal iced Boston's first win of the season, against the Coyotes in Prague. His second came Thursday against the Maple Leafs and Phil Kessel, the player Boston traded to get the No. 2 pick of the 2010 Entry Draft they used to take Seguin.

Seguin has 3 goals and 5 points in eight games, and has done everything the team has wanted as far playing the position at both ends of the ice. It's earned him a spot with the club for the rest of the season, which Claude Julien proclaimed following Thursday's game.

"He's here to stay," Julien told reporters.

Cam Fowler, D, Ducks -- Fowler hasn't played since breaking his nose when he was hit into the boards Oct. 17 against the Coyotes, but prior to his injury, the 18-year-old defenseman was blossoming into a mainstay in Anaheim.

Fowler has a goal and 2 assists in six games, is averaging 20:05, and played more than 21 minutes in every game except the one in which he was injured. The injury came at the conclusion of a spectacular end-to-end rush that saw him skate past every Phoenix skater on the ice before , leaving the puck on the goal line, but as he went behind the net, he lost an edge and started to fall as Coyotes captain Shane Doan knocked him into the boards.

"You have to shake your head to remember he's only 18," Ducks coach Randy Carlyle said recently. "That's what separates him from the rest of the players in his age group. He's able to do things at a very high level. His compete level is right up there, his execution level is very, very high. You don't recognize him as an 18 year old at all."

Contact Adam Kimelman at akimelman@nhl.com


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