All it took was one look at the Penguins’ depth chart for Mark Letestu to know that a change could be on the horizon.
When his phone rang around 6:30 p.m. last night, it was a call from Pittsburgh general manager Ray Shero letting him know he had been traded to the Blue Jackets. For a player that was watching his role change on the ice and with teammates around him beginning to recover from injury, a new challenge was something to embrace.
Letestu said the move was not a complete shock. As the situation developed in Pittsburgh, he knew a resolution was not too far in the distance.
“The way Pittsburgh’s depth chart is down the middle with guys injured and coming back, space had to be made somewhere,” Letestu said. “I’m excited that it was me. I’m coming to a place where I feel like I’m going to step into a role and play a lot more than I did.
“I’m happy for the opportunity and grateful for my time in Pittsburgh.”
Letestu, 26, comes to the Blue Jackets after spending the previous five seasons in the Penguins organization. He has played for Penguins affiliates in Wheeling and Wilkes-Barre and finally got a full-time shot with the big club last season. In 64 games a year ago, Letestu scored 14 goals and 27 total points, often drawing in on the team’s top line with Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal.
A free-agent signing out of Western Michigan University (where he played one season), Letestu has made the most of his opportunities at every level and is looking forward to continuing his career with the Blue Jackets. Columbus coach Scott Arniel made sure Letestu hit the ground running at practice this morning, skating him on a line with Vinny Prospal and center Derick Brassard.
“He’s a capable guy that has been playing behind some pretty good talent in Pittsburgh,” Arniel said. “That’s experience we need. He’s not very old but he is a guy that’s played in a good organization that does things the right way.
“We’re real excited to get him - and to not give up a piece, that’s a real good acquisition.”
Blue Jackets assistant coach Todd Richards also has ties to Letestu, having coached him with Wilkes-Barre in the 2008-09 season. Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said Letestu’s work ethic was an integral part of his development as a player, and despite having mixed feelings about seeing the player leave, will follow his career and watch when he has the chance.
“He had a long road of experiences in the AHL and ECHL, back and forth there,” Bylsma told the Penguins official website. “He got the opportunity here and established himself last year. I feel there is some emotional attachment to Mark Letestu and the journey that he’s been on, being a part of that.
“I feel like I spent a lot of time with him. I’m proud of the way he’s progressed and worked.”
Part of that progression has been Letestu’s ability to play all three forward positions. That versatility will be important for Arniel and the Blue Jackets, giving the coach flexibility to re-work the lines if needed. The fact that Letestu has shown he can play up or down in the lineup on a deep Pittsburgh team gives Arniel no issues with placement.
“He’s got a great scoring touch, great hands in tight,” Arniel said. “He can play center, play right wing and he’s real good on the power play. I know at times last year, he was up (in the Penguins lineup) with Malkin and he had 13 or 14 goals.”
Letestu’s line mates think he can step in and contribute right away. Though he hasn’t gotten off to a quick start this season (one assist in 11 games), a new team and opportunity to make a difference are things that every player needs at some point in his career.
“He’s a hard-working guy with a good shot,” Brassard said. “He’s really quick and was playing on a really good team in Pittsburgh, so we can use his energy here. We’ll try to make plays and have fun out there.”
With this year and one more remaining on his contract, the move to Columbus is more than just a one-year audition for Letestu with the Blue Jackets. He has played on teams in a similar situation, and isn’t concerned about being traded to a team that has struggled to put wins together. It’s all part of one’s approach, he said, to being part of the turnaround.
“It doesn’t deter me from the challenge ahead,” Letestu said. “I’ve played on teams in this situation, and I’m here to be part of the solution, not the problem. Come in with a good attitude and hopefully we can string together some wins and get this team out of the basement.
“This is something I think I needed; a new start, a new team and new atmosphere to get something jump-started.”