Despite an impressive performance from Mark Letestu through the first 10 days of training camp back in September, at the time he still didn’t feel completely safe in Pittsburgh’s lineup.
“I don’t think 10 games into the season that I feel comfortable,” he told PittsburghPenguins.com following the Penguins’ fourth preseason game, a 4-1 win over Chicago.
just the way camp sets up and the way the contracts are. I just need to keep playing the way I have been and hopefully force somebody to keep me here.”
Four months later he’s done just that, as the 25-year-old rookie center signed a two-year contract extension with the Penguins on Tuesday.
“It’s something to be pretty proud of, getting two more years here,” he said. “It gives me an excellent opportunity to establish myself as an NHL player, and definitely play my way into more contracts with this organization.”
Letestu, who signed with the Pittsburgh organization as an undrafted free agent, been a stalwart in the Penguins lineup this season, earning a spot with his tenacious, determined play and strong skills down the middle after spending the previous three campaigns with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League.
His performance in camp impressed the coaching staff, and with Jordan Staal
being sidelined with an injury, Letestu took his opportunity and seized it.
“Coming into camp, (Letestu) had a strong chance to make the next step and prove that he could play at a consistent level,” head coach Dan Bylsma said. “Jordan not being with us for camp and for the start of the season really opened up an opportunity for Mark, which he seized, especially early on in a situation where we’re looking for some depth at the center position for some possible offense on that position and on the power play as well. He was able to step in and be that.”
This year marks Letestu’s first full season with the squad. Letestu made his NHL debut last season with Pittsburgh, appearing in 10 games and four postseason games.
Letestu had posted impressive offensive numbers with WBS, scoring 51 goals and 134 points over 191 career games played.
He credits the length of time he spent in the organization to making him into a complete player.
“They allowed me three years in the minors to develop, and here still, trying to make me a better hockey player,” he said. “Definitely the organization and the coaches and the people involved have done a tremendous amount for my career ... I’ve only known one organization, I’ve only known one philosophy, and I’ve seen the success it brings. I’ve seen what these coaches’ philosophies (can do).”
Bylsma agreed wholeheartedly.
“He’s a guy that knows how to play and play the right way for our team,” Bylsma said. “We’ve got to have (players like Letestu) in our organization. When we look at where our other players are at, we need these players to come up into our organization.”
Letestu is continuing to produce offensively in his rookie season with the Penguins. Despite not getting the ice time that fellow rookies like Carolina's Jeff Skinner and Edmonton's Taylor Hall get, Letestu still ranks 10th in the league in rookie scoring with his nine goals and 19 points through 46 games.
Letestu has constantly worked to improve all aspects of his game, and it’s paying off dividends. The center has been extremely strong off the draw for the Penguins this season, with his 54.3-percent success rate ranking second on the team behind Sidney Crosby
Not only that, but Letestu worked hard all summer to prove his worth to the Penguins management, especially after they sent him a message before the offseason began that he needed to come to training camp in better shape.
“Something I had to really get under control was my diet,” he said. “It was a message sent to me before training camp this year was to come back in better shape, and it’s something I definitely attacked this summer. It helped me get off to the start I needed to stay here, and it’s helping me right now through the grind that a long season can be.”
Add that all up, and Letestu has earned two more years with the Penguins.
“It’s pretty awesome,” Letestu said with a big smile. “Being undrafted and kind of a quick turnaround, it’s been a good ride, I’ve enjoyed every stop and this is just another step. There’ll be more after this, and hopefully I play my way into being wanted for another (contract).”