The St. Louis Blues have gone from thinking they’d lost prospect Jori Lehtera for good to hoping he’s ready to make the leap to the NHL.
Lehtera played in just seven playoff games with the Blues’ American Hockey League affiliate, the Peoria Rivermen, back in 2009 before returning to his native Finland.
St. Louis re-signed the Lehtera to a two-year, $5.5 million contract on July 1. As Blues beat writer Jeremy Rutherford, points out St. Louis was running out of time to bring Lehtera back into the fold. NHL teams control players’ rights until they turn 27, Lehtera will turn 27 on Dec. 23.
“I had a good chat with him quite honestly at the Olympics at the dining hall,” General Manager Doug Armstrong told the Dispatch following the signing. “I told him that we were disappointed that we couldn’t come to an agreement and he said at the end of the day, he felt he made a mistake (staying in Russia).”
The 26-year-old spent the past four seasons in the KHL where he averaged 13 goals a season playing for Yaroslavl and then Novosibirsk. In total Lehtera scored 55 goals and 100 assists in 178 games while in Russia.
But it was Lehtera’s performance at the 2014 Olympics where he had a goal and three assists in six games helping Finland capture a bronze medal, which impressed Blues head coach, Ken Hitchcock.
“When the Olympics started he was the fourth-line left-winger; the tournament finished with him being the second-line center iceman,” Hitchcock told NHL.com in July. “He worked his way all the way up the lineup and he was a really trusted player by the coaching staff. What I really noticed was when the game was on the line that coaching staff trusted him more and more. When the World Championships were on, he was their No. 1 center. He played in every situation, almost 20 minutes per night, same coach, same trust. That doesn’t go unnoticed.
“I think the thing that comes to mind for me when I evaluate him is he’s going to find a place to play on our team because he’s competitive, he’s smart and he’s got great hockey sense. I don’t know where that place is, I don’t know how far up or down the lineup it’s going to be, but I just know he’s going to find a place to play.”
The Blues feel Lehtera, despite being an NHL rookie, could have an immediate impact in his first season and see him centring a line of Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko. Tarasenko and Lehtera do have experience playing with one another having spent time together with Novosibirsk during the 2011-12 season.
For now, Lehtera is pencilled in to that role. With the likes of Paul Statsny, Patrik Berglund and Maxim Lapierre all in the mix down the middle, Lehtera is sure to have competition at camp.