Head coach Dan Bylsma spent all summer talking about the level of competition he expects to see at this year’s training camp. Bylsma wants some of the younger players who have spent the past couple seasons toiling for the Penguins’ top minor-league affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to perform well enough to merit starting this season in Pittsburgh.
One of those players, 25-year-old center Mark Letestu, took a good first step in that direction during the team’s first training camp scrimmage Saturday morning at CONSOL Energy Center.
Letestu, who played 10 National Hockey League games with the Penguins in 2009-10 and also appeared in two postseason contests when Jordan Staal
was sidelined with a foot injury, opened the scrimmage by centering a line with veteran forwards Matt Cooke
and Arron Asham
“I think that is a big shot in the arm,” Letestu said. “I think my first few camps, I didn’t have guys who played 10-plus NHL seasons on my line. I think it shows the coaches want to see what I can do in those situations. It is my job to perform well.”
“I got a chance to play with him last year during the playoffs when Staalsy went down,” Cooke said. “He is a very smart player who pays attention to details well. He communicates well on the ice and will keep it simple. That’s how I like to play as well. He really has a good chance to make this team.”
Letestu performed well on Saturday, scoring the only goal of the scrimmage when he stood at the top of the crease and converted a Maxime Talbot feed behind Brent Johnson
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It was a great start to training camp for Letestu, who is one of several young forwards vying to push for the extra playing time that became available when the Penguins announced Staal would miss the next 5-6 weeks with a foot infection.
Letestu said that Staal’s absence and the ice time it created isn’t what motivated him heading into camp. Instead, he is just trying to meet the expectations Bylsma laid out for him following a successful late-season run with the Penguins last year.
“There is a particular challenge I was given when I left here for the summer – come into camp in great shape and be ready to earn myself a spot,” Letestu said. “No matter who was signed I am going out there and doing the same thing. Hopefully it helps me earn a spot come October.”
What is going to help earn Letestu a spot – even more so than scoring goals like he did on Saturday – is playing the smart, all-around game he is noted for.
Letestu, who registered career highs across the board last season by producing 24 goals, 37 assists and 61 points with WBS, is a crafty enough playmaker to be used on the power play, like he was during Round 2 of the playoffs against Montreal, but he’s even more valuable on the penalty kill – where the Penguins have an opening at the beginning of the season without Staal.
That Letestu is a solid penalty killer should come as no surprise. His high hockey IQ is as good as anybody challenging to make the team. He showed his defensive prowess several times during the scrimmage by being in the right place at the right time defensively to break up opponent scoring chances.
“I think that is probably the best thing I do,” Letestu said. “I know the systems and know where to be. It helps to do that stuff when you are not as quick. Being in the right spots helps me look like I am quick.”
On Saturday, Penguins assistant coach Tony Granato, who was helping run the bench for Team B, threw a new challenge Letestu’s way – he gave him a couple of shifts on the wing. Letestu felt that he adjusted well to the move, noting how adding that versatility to his game can only pay dividends when the coaches begin making final roster cuts.
“I like to show some versatility,” Letestu said. “With nine guys who can play center on the roster, that’s going to be a key. Like I said before, I’ll do whatever is asked of me to make this team.”