It’s the fastest league in the world, and the best. So it stands to reason if a player in the NHL takes anything for granted on the ice, bad things happen. Passes get picked off, opponents go blowing by you, or the puck goes in top shelf, blocker side. There’s an absolute premium in this league on staying razor-sharp with your focus and always trying to anticipate what could happen next.
And so it is with careers, especially for that majority of players who have to prove themselves year after year, shift after shift, no matter what success they may have achieved in the past.
Take Blue Jackets center Mark Letestu, for example. Just two years ago, he was named Pittsburgh Penguins rookie of the year after tallying 27 points in 64 games for the Pens.
Last season, after being acquired in a trade by Columbus, Letestu finished the year with strong numbers, scoring six goals, adding six assists and going +8 in his final 17 games. Overall, he generated 11 goals and added 13 assists in 51 games played with the Blue Jackets. That’s solid production. But fast forward to the start of this season, and the native of Alberta found himself a healthy scratch, at least for the first two games at Nashville and home vs. Detroit.
Letestu wasn’t phased, though. He knows this league is all about proving yourself, all the time.
“You know you just don’t take anything for granted,” he said. “Two years now I’ve put in pretty good seasons in this league, but you’re always battling. No matter what you did before, you’re battling year after year. And I think it’s critical to be coming into camp every year and putting your best foot forward, because you never know where you might be in the lineup. I’m definitely learning that every year, to take care of yourself and be ready for every year on its own.”
As much as he understands the continuous battle to prove himself and earn every minute of his ice time, Letestu has also been anxious to prove he can carry over the late-season surge in production last year to his game this season. That productive stretch gave him a confidence boost he’s looking forward to applying now.
“I think I can hang my hat on the way that I finished last year,” he noted. “The coach put a lot of trust in me and gave me a lot of ice time at the end of last year. But at the same time, you understand they’re putting the lineup out there they feel has the best chance of winning. For me, I have to work as hard as I can to get in that picture and make it real difficult for them to take me out.”
While he’s definitely not the Blue Jackets’ most flashy player, there’s a lot to like about Letestu’s steady, reliable game and solid work on faceoffs.
“It’s a responsible game,” he explained, “based on a lot of positioning and knowing the systems, being predictable to my teammates. And when I get a chance,” he added, “I’ve been lucky enough to put away a few goals. Obviously, the faceoff circle’s another thing that gets me some ice time, getting out there in key situations. You know, for big draws, it can get you some more shifts. I hope my game is one the coaches trust when I’m on the ice.”
In his brief NHL career, the 27-year-old Letestu (28 on 2/4/13) is averaging 16 goals per season. That’s good goal production for a centerman who’s also very mindful of his own zone. But, after this off-season’s acquisitions, Columbus is pretty deep up the middle. So Letestu continues to work hard, in practice and in the weight room, waiting for the time when he gets the nod from the coaching staff night after night.