COLUMBUS, Ohio - Mark Letestu joined the Blue Jackets in November of 2011 as a player seeking a new, fresh opportunity and hoped he would fit in with Columbus.
Seventeen months later, it’s safe to say he’s one of the players this management team wants to win with.
The versatile, jack-of-all-trades forward is going to be spending at least the next couple of seasons with the Blue Jackets in the city he and his growing family now call home. Letestu signed a two-year contract extension with the club today, and in doing so, removed the uncertainty that would have loomed with unrestricted free agency this summer.
"(Management) wants to get better," Letestu said. "They want to be a playoff contender, a championship team and I think they'll leave no stone unturned to become a winner."
But the open market wasn’t something that really appealed to Letestu, whose wife Brett is approaching her due date with the couple’s second child and who wants to put down the family roots in Ohio’s capital city. It's a nice feeling but not a comfortable one for Letestu, who went undrafted and was signed as a free agent out of Western Michigan University and has had to prove many people wrong throughout his career.
The opportunity he got from the Blue Jackets was more than he could have expected, Letestu said.
"It's in my nature to always be looking over my shoulder," Letestu said. "This certainly doesn't mean that I can rest now, it's just another dollar figure that I have to live up to and work to. There's another contract after this that I'm playing for and it's just another step. It's a progression for me and I hope there's another one after this.
"For me to pull in on some nights 20 minutes...that's more than I could have expected and it's always been positive for me since I've been here. Anytime someone trades for you, I take that as they want you here and want you part of something. It's been positive, I've seen the direction we're going and we've seen some of the rewards for it so far."
And on the ice, Letestu has certainly fit in and played a variety of roles for Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards, who has come to trust the 28-year-old with important minutes in all situations. Letestu has racked up nine goals and 11 assists in 34 games this season, holds a strong +6 rating and has played 20-plus minutes in two of the last four games.
“Mark is a smart, versatile forward who brings consistency and a great work ethic every time he takes the ice and we are very pleased to have him remain with our hockey club,” Kekalainen said in a statement issued by the club.
With 12 games remaining in the regular season and the Blue Jackets in the thick of the Western Conference playoff hunt, Letestu is the team’s second-leading scorer and has tallied goals in virtually every situation: shorthanded, 4-on-4, 5-on-4 and on the power play.
After a multi-point effort (one goal, one assist) in the Blue Jackets’ 2-1 overtime win over the Anaheim Ducks on Sunday afternoon, Letestu had played 85 games in a Columbus sweater. In that span, the native of Elk Point, Alberta has accumulated 20 goals and 24 assists – making him not only a versatile player, but a productive one.
"There's always going to be ups and downs, and right now, I'm on an up and the team's on an up," Letestu said. "Hopefully that's not a coincidence. You're always trying to get better; I'm still pretty new to the league and haven't hit 200 games yet. There's still a lot for me to learn and still some growth there."
Former Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson, seeking depth at forward during a turbulent first month of the 2011-12 season, traded a fourth-round draft pick to the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for Letestu, who has gone on to play pretty much every position except goaltender for the Jackets. Richards and his staff have used Letestu at all three forward positions (and he’s performed exceptionally well in the face-off circle) as well at the point on the power play.
As John Davidson and Jarmo Kekalainen begin to put into motion their long-term plan for the Blue Jackets, they can check one item off their list and know that Letestu will be part of it.
"Management's belief in me that I can be part of the future and part of the direction we're going...we talk about going north and brick-by-brick, I'm one of those bricks," Letestu said. "To come to me and get something worked out, it speaks a lot to their confidence in me and my desire to stay here."