A resurgent Lehtera makes Blues’ dynamic STL line even more potent
ST. LOUIS — The most unheralded member of the Blues’ top scoring line rarely matches the production of his fellow linemates.
Of course, no one for St. Louis can match the production of Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz, two of the team’s top three points leaders. Center Jori Lehtera doesn’t need to score so much as give his teammates the puck, but he still plays a key role that may go unnoticed.
"He’s a really reliable guy in all three zones, works really hard defensively, always in the right spot on breakouts," says Schwartz, who scored on a blistering wrist shot for the second straight game in the Blues’ 6-1 win at Toronto. "In the O-zone he goes to the net, creates space and makes plays in tight areas, too."
That kind of selfless play led to three assists against the Maple Leafs, a rare outburst after just three points in the previous 16 games. He has scored just twice in his last 42 games, including no goals in his last 17.
Lehtera will be the first to admit some of that slump in January could be attributed to poor play, even as Schwartz and Tarasenko combined for 13 goals and 10 assists in 11 games for the month. Coach Ken Hitchcock has said Lehtera looked to have lost a little energy, perhaps from the demands of his first NHL season.
Then a concussion knocked him out for nearly two weeks, and the Blues got a rough reminder of how much Lehtera brings the offense, especially after defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk went down with an injury. But Hitchcock says the break ended up helping Lehtera, and he’s looked different in the 12 games since his return.
"I’ve seen more energy, more endurance," Hitchcock says. "On the road trip their line was terrific."
The STL line combined for 11 points in those five games, seven of which came Saturday at Toronto. Chances were starting to build up long before the puck started going into the net, and Schwartz says those goals should give them confidence to produce more going forward.
Hitchcock says the group’s puck support has been much better, and they remain especially dangerous on the rush. Lehtera often makes the first pass or wins the faceoff that eventually leads to a goal, and he doesn’t seem to have any problem letting Schwartz and Tarasenko get all the glory.
A hat trick against Buffalo still accounts for one-third of Lehtera’s goal total, and he’s just seventh on the team with 27 assists. But that doesn’t account for his willingness to fight for pucks along the boards or his solid defensive work, particularly on a penalty-kill unit that went a perfect 13 for 13 on the road trip.
Those contributions and solid chemistry with Tarasenko, his former KHL teammate, are why he remains on the second line, playing more than 15 minutes per game since coming back from his concussion. Paul Stastny may be a much more dynamic player who would do even better alongside two great scorers, but Lehtera plays well enough in his role to provide Hitchcock with three strong lines, rather than just two.
Captain David Backes says that’s essential if St. Louis wants to find success down the stretch and into the playoffs. The Blues haven’t won often with just one line, except of course when Lehtera scored six goals and added eight assists during a 9-1 stretch that began in late October.
When he’s playing his game and scoring at the same rate as Schwartz and Tarasenko, opposing defenses don’t have a chance.