Sunday was the final day at the office for the Blue Jackets, as players cleaned out their lockers and had their final meetings with coaches and management before beginning their offseason. Needless to say, it was a wrap-up day that came much sooner than any player wanted or expected.
There were no sticks being cut, skates being sharpened, or weights being tossed around. There were only farewells and the promises of better results for next year. And of course, like every season, there are those players who know they may be leaving Nationwide Arena for the final time as a Jacket.
One of the most versatile Jackets falls under that category as the summer approaches. Center Mark Letestu is set to hit the open market on July if he and the front office can’t reach an agreement on a new contract.
There are a variety of factors that GM Jarmo Kekalainen must consider in those negotiations, including finding roster spots for the young talent ready to make the jump to the NHL next season. But speaking to reporters on Sunday, there was no mistaking where Letestu would prefer to be playing next year.
“I’ve made it very clear to everyone here that I’d like to stay, but those decisions aren’t always in your power," Letestu said. "At times, organizations have to make decisions based on the organization’s best interest, and sometimes personal feelings have to be left out of that. But I’d love to stay.
"I’m still optimistic that something will get worked out, but there’s a lot of time left before a decision has to be made.”
If Letestu is not playing in Columbus next season, he would be leaving behind big shoes to fill. Like much of the roster, Letestu spent much of this season hampered by injuries, particularly an abdominal injury that required surgery. Limited to only 54 games, Letestu had seven goals and 13 points this season. His value goes well beyond that.
Not many fourth line players in the league have worn as many hats as Letestu has in Columbus. He’s been a top-six forward, a power play point man, a shootout specialist, and at all times throughout his tenure an elite penalty killer.
Sevearal teams could come calling this summer should Letestu reach July 1. While those teams might be able to offer Letestu that expanded role once more, that won’t be a factor in determining where Letestu signs.
“When you go through a negotiation, you’ll talk about possible roles on different teams," Letestu said. "But winning is No. 1 for me. The last two years I’ve taken a decreased role and I’ve never complained about it. When you win, people have to sacrifice, whether it is ice time or power play time, playing the wing or fourth line to first line, to win people have to make sacrifices. That’s what I believe in.
“I believe everyone here has had to make (sacrifices) in different ways and mine has been in the amount I play sometimes. But I’m not going around searching for more ice time somewhere else. I want to win here and if that means I’ll play five minutes a night or sit in the press box, I’ll do what I can to the best of my ability.”
Letestu admitted that there is some mixture of both excitement and anxiety with free agency, with one outcome allowing him to return to his regular routine and the other accompanied by life-altering change. Letestu has a home in Columbus and a young family and enjoys living in Columbus, but beyond the personal and family implications of this summer, there is a sense of unfinished business in Columbus in which he has invested a good chunk of his career.
“I was here at one of the lowest points for this organization. I said adversity reveals character, and I want to see it through,” he said. “We went through the tough times together as a group, and I want to win together as a group. It’d be easy for me to run and try to find a more suitable Stanley Cup contender, but I want to win here and that’s my reason to stay.”