Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Jori Lehtera declares "I'm ready"

Finnish center caps off strong training camp, preseason, 
ready to give Blues another weapon down middle of ice

ST. LOUIS -- A two-goal, one-assist final preseason game Saturday was enough optimism for Blues center Jori Lehtera to make the following declaration:

"I think I'm ready to start the season," Lehtera said.

Is he ever.

So much for having to adjust to a narrow sheet of ice.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Jori Lehtera (12) had six points in five preseason games for the Blues and
declared himself ready for the rigors of the NHL season.

Lehtera, the 26-year-old restricted free agent addition that nobody but general manager Doug Armstrong (and perhaps coach Ken Hitchcock) saw coming on a day the Blues also signed the biggest free agent center on the market in Paul Stastny, finally arrived in St. Louis after it appeared that any chance he would play in St. Louis was on life support after Lehtera shunned Armstrong during the off-season in 2013.

But when Lehtera, drafted in the third round of the 2008 NHL Draft, admitted to Armstrong during the Sochi Olympics that he had made a mistake in not coming to the Blues for the 2013-14 season, it set the wheels in motion for the sides to agree on a two-year, $5.5 million contract.

Lehtera, a native of Helsinki, Finland, capped off his first training camp with three goals and three assists in five preseason games.

Lehtera was arguably the best player on the ice against the Minnesota Wild on Saturday night (the Wild played most of their top players in the game) playing on a line with Jaden Schwartz and Joakim Lindstrom. He had been playing much of training camp with Vladimir Tarasenko, his buddy and fellow linemate when the two played together for Sibir Novosibirsk of the Kontinental Hockey League, but Hitchcock wanted to get the 6-foot-2, 210-pound center into as much NHL action and way of living as possible.

"I think these five games, I started to play better and better," said Lehtera, who paid roughly $1 million out of his own pocket to get out of his KHL contract. "I started to get used to the style and everything.

"I got a lot of ice time (Saturday) and played a good game, or our line (did). ... I'm ready. I'm in good shape. I had a very good summer. I worked really hard. I think these five games helped me a little bit to get used to the small rink game. It's faster and you have to do everything faster. I think I'm ready now."

There was an element of the unknown when it came to Lehtera heading into training camp. Nobody knew how he would fit in, nobody knew where he would play and nobody knew how the Blues would use him.

Nobody but Hitchcock, who got a close, extensive view of Lehtera when he played for Finland at the Sochi Games.

"I knew he would have an impact in the game because of his moxie," Hitchcock said of Lehtera. "I saw that in the Olympics; started in the back (of Finland's lineup), got to the front. At the World Championships, he was just good all the way across the board, so you saw that. ... Lehtera played in, I bet you close to 100 games last year. He looks like he's ready to play.

"This is not surprising for me based on what we saw at the Olympics and the World Championships. Olympics especially was very rich competition. He started as a fourth-line left winger and ends up as a second-line center. ... He's a guy playing all this hockey and what (did) he have (Saturday), three points and is a plus player again? Really impressive."

When Schwartz signed his two-year contract Sept. 27, he reported to camp two days later and Hitchcock immediately grouped him with Lehtera and Tarasenko against the Wild on Oct. 2.

"I don't know what's going to happen; we tend to change lines quite a bit, but if I start the season with him, I'll definitely be happy," Schwartz said of Lehtera. "He's a great player. He can make plays in tight areas, he sees the ice really well. But even then, he's responsible defensively, he works hard and he really gets in there on faceoffs, too. Seems like a great overall player. He can definitely make plays, which is nice to see."

The Blues headed into the off-season with questions at center. Adding Stastny was definitely a plus. With Lehtera also in the fold, the Blues have -- dare it be said --  a surplus of players that can play down the middle, including David Backes, Patrik Berglund, Steve Ott and Maxim Lapierre.

"Lehtera has obviously been really good," Berglund said. "Hopefully that can keep going once the regular season starts. 

"It's really good that we have a solid two-way player like that that we can drop in the lineup."
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Jori Lehtera (12) scored twice and set up another goal in the Blues' final
preseason game Saturday against the Minnesota Wild.

A player who played in the Blues' organization with then-American Hockey League affiliate, the Peoria Rivermen, for seven games in 2009 before heading overseas, first to play for Tappara Tampere in Finland and then to the KHL with Yaroslavl Lokomotiv and Sibir.

But Lehtera took advantage of coming in before camp started, dedicated himself on and off the ice to tackling the challenge of playing in the NHL and is anxious to being a key piece to the puzzle as the Blues embark on another journey towards their ultimate goal.

"Practice on the ice is the hardest part for me because there you have to do things that the coach tells you," Lehtera joked. "It's much harder. In the games, you use your hockey sense.

"I've learned a lot of things here about myself, about hockey and everything. I like it here. I'm ready."

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