Saturday, September 6, 2014

Mature Lehtera admits, "I made a mistake"

Finnish center has arrived in St. Louis anxious to make impact for Blues

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- With players, coaches and executives more than likely to run into each other at the Winter Olympic village in Sochi, Russia, it was just a matter of time before Jori Lehtera and Doug Armstrong crossed paths.

The ensuing -- and initial conversation -- proved to be of vital importance.

It began with an admittance. The rest became a formality.

When it appeared Lehtera donning a Blues jersey was slim-and-none at best in 2013, came full circle after the team drafted him in 2008.

"I went to him and I told him I make a mistake that I didn't come last year," Lehtera said of his conversation with the Blues' general manager. "He told me that I should come next year. Now I'm here and everything is good."
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Jori Lehtera arrived in St. Louis Tuesday, getting a leg up with informal
workouts with his new Blues teammates. 

Everything is good. In fact, Lehtera (the Blues' third round pick in '08) made his first appearance on the ice Wednesday for informal practice after 20 hours of flight time from Helsinki, Finland; picking up where he left off with a familiar foe: Vladimir Tarasenko. 

Paul Stastny was the biggest splash the Blues made this off-season, and one that may not have been as surprising as some thought, but a year after the 26-year-old Lehtera spurned the Blues and stayed in the Kontinental Hockey League with Sibir Novosibirsk and all but closed the door for a move to the NHL and with the Blues, signed a two-year contract for $5.5 million, a contract that nobody saw coming.

And just to prove his word meant something, Lehtera backed those words up with actions necessary to complete his journey to the NHL.

"Yeah, I had to pay myself out of the team (in Sibir)," Lehtera said in order to get out of his KHL contract. "It was an easy decision because I wanted to come no matter what."

How much?

"Sixty-six percent of my salary (said to be roughly $1 million)," Lehtera said. 

The timing of the signing was perfect, because Lehtera could have become an unrestricted free agent upon turning 27. He will turn 27 in December.

Listed at 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, Lehtera is a bit of an unknown. He did make a cameo appearance with the Blues' American Hockey League affiliate (Peoria Rivermen) in 2009 and played seven games. But he returned to Finland for one more season with Tappara Tampere before moving on to Russia's KHL.

"I felt the best choice for me was to go to Russia," said Lehtera, who had 55 goals and 153 points in four KHL seasons spanning 178 regular season games. "My plan was to stay there one year and it was four. I don't know ... now I think it's a perfect time for me to come here. Much better player than back then."

There are video clips of Lehtera as a player, there was ample opportunity to observe his game playing for Finland at the Sochi Olympics and World Championships. But those games, along with ones from the KHL, are played on a different ice surface.

"Of course, the rink is smaller," Lehtera said. "You have to make decisions much faster, but if you're a good hockey player, you can do it in a big rink or smaller rink."

The unknown commodity stops when it gets to Tarasenko, who enjoyed one of his finer seasons in the KHL as a teammate and linemate with Lehtera at Sibir. 

Tarasenko was roughly a point-per-game player (38 points in 39 games) and Lehtera had 26 points (10 goals) in 25 games with Sibir in 2010-11 playing with Tarasenko and Jonas Enlund. 

Tarasenko said he and Lehtera talked the past couple seasons about the idea of playing together once again ... in St. Louis.

"He's a skill player. Of course he can pass," Tarasenko said of Lehtera. "We played together in Russia for a couple years on the same line. It was a really good time. I liked to play with him.

"I think he's already ready for the NHL. He played really good in the World Championships and Olympic games. ... It's nice to have somebody here from your hometown."

The two dazzled on the ice for a practice session earlier in the week at the Ice Zone as if they didn't skip a beat, which begs the question of whether coach Ken Hitchcock will pair Tarasenko and Lehtera together.

"Of course," Lehtera said when asked if he'd welcome the idea. "We played one year in Sibir together, on the same line. It was really nice. That was a really good year. We'll see what's going to happen."

The scouting report on Lehtera always seems to come back to his use of his hands, described as having a soft, deft touch. But Hitchcock, who watched Lehtera at the Olympics as an assistant coach with Canada, views a complete package.

"I watched Lehtera in the Olympics start at the back of the bus and move to the front of the bus," said Hitchcock, who confirmed he will pair Lehtera and Tarasenko together when camp opens Sept. 18. "I saw him come in as a fourth-line left winger and exit the tournament as the second-line center. He earned it. He earned it because he played well. I was impressed. Then I watched him in all the games at the World Championships. He was a go-to guy in every situation, offensively, defensively, power play, penalty killing. Against good players, he played big minutes.

"I don't know where Jori's going to end up. I don't know how high up the ladder he's going to go, but I said this before, the thing that impresses any coach is moxie. That's the word that I would use that he has. He's got moxie. He's got the ability on the ice of finding a way to impact the game. Sometimes it's offensively, sometimes it's with the puck, sometimes it's without the puck. But to me, you're left with the impression that Jori's a competitive, smart player. He's going to have adjustment time, he's going to have all kinds of similar adjustments like Vlad went through. Size of the rink, new cities, travel, not knowing the opponent, not knowing the competition. He's going to have to go through all that stuff, but the nice part for me, he's experienced a lot of that already by playing in the Worlds and in the Olympics. It doesn't get any higher than the Olympics."

Lehtera, projected as a top-nine forward, welcomes any opportunity to be on the ice. He exudes confidence on and off the ice and it's obvious he won't shy away from any challenge the coaching staff throws his direction.

"I'll take everything I can get," Lehtera said. "It depends on me and how I do. I'll try to give them the best of me and we'll see how much I can play.

"I can't say what (I can do), but I can make the team, I can play a lot ... whatever."

The Blues' recent success certainly helped sway Lehtera away from the KHL and join the team that drafted him. Being touted as a Stanley Cup contender never hurts.

"That was a really big (reason) I wanted to come here because everybody told me it's a really good team," Lehtera said. "A lot of my buddies that played in the NHL, they told me it's the (hardest) team to play against. Everybody hates it. For me, it's really good."
(Getty Images)
Finland's Jori Lehtera (left) and Sweden's Daniel Sedin battle for the puck
along the boards during competition at the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Although times have changed and more and more players from the KHL and/or Europe (Russia, specifically) are intrigued by competing in the NHL and make the trek to North America, it's still a risk at times, with no guarantees.

Lehtera was heading down that path. The Blues didn't completely close the door when Armstrong had every reason to slam it. By not doing so, the Blues are about to find out just what they have. The potential is there. The results are anxiously awaiting.

"I think as a player, you just know when you're ready. That's what he said to Doug, that he should have come over when Doug invited him the first time," Hitchcock said of Lehtera. "We waited a year, but he's here now. So in my opinion, he's even going to be more ready. 

"The nice part about him for me as a coach selfishly is that he's not a player that has to be pigeon-holed into one role. He's going to find his place; I don't know where it is yet, but he's going to find his place. When you see a player with that size and determination, you know he's not going to be pushed out of that competition very easily."

"They really wanted me to come here and I wanted to come here," Lehtera said of the Blues. "I can't wait because usually before, I started the (KHL) season July 15th. Now being here, let's start already.

"... It's been my dream since I was a little kid."

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