Looking to make the leap: Jori Lehtera


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 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.

Related: After Miller (and many others) failed, Blues turn to Elliot and Allen

DiMaio named Blues’ director of player personnel

via St. Louis Blues
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The St. Louis Blues named Rob DiMaio their director of player personnel on Tuesday.

He’s been with the organization for some time. He joined as a pro scout in 2008 and was the pro scouting director starting in August 2012.

He was also a scout for the Dallas Stars before landing with the Blues (one would assume his biggest connection is GM Doug Armstrong, then).

In case his nose didn’t give it away, he also enjoyed a lengthy hockey career over 19 seasons.

No doubt about it, this is a pivotal season for the Blues after multiple campaigns in which strong regular seasons dissolved into playoff disappointments. Perhaps DiMaio can make a difference in a heightened role?

Hitchcock going to more aggressive attack for Blues

Ken Hitchcock

ST. LOUIS (AP) After three straight first-round playoff exits, the St. Louis Blues have learned to temper expectations.

They have been consistently among the NHL’s best in the regular season and realize it is past time to build something for the long haul. The sting still lingers from the latest failure, against the Minnesota Wild last spring.

“We’re all disappointed, everybody can agree on that,” defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. “It’s never easy to kind of think about your failures, but we grow every time it happens.”

Management isn’t ready to tear it all down yet.

“We play, in my opinion, one of the toughest if not the toughest division in the NHL, and we’ve finished first or second in the last four years,” forward Alexander Steen said. “So we have an extremely powerful team.”

Maybe a change in strategy will be enough: Coach Ken Hitchcock is back with a mandate for a more aggressive, even reckless, style of play from a roster that hasn’t changed appreciably.

“We’re coming hard from the back and we’re coming hard to see how close we can get to the attack,” Hitchcock said. “I think it’s where the game’s at; I think it’s where the game’s going to go.”

The 63-year-old Hitchcock is pushing forward, too, unwilling to dwell on the flameouts. Coach and players agree that would be “wasted energy.”

“My opinion is when you sit and think about the past, you do yourself no good,” Hitchcock said. “If you learn from the past, that’s when you do yourself a whole bunch of good.”

There were only two major roster casualties. Forward Troy Brouwer came from Washington in a trade for fan favorite T.J. Oshie. Defenseman Barret Jackman, the franchise career leader in games, wasn’t re-signed.

“If you were expecting 23 new faces to be on the roster this year, I don’t think that was realistic,” captain David Backes said. “We’re going to miss those guys in the room and on the ice, but there has been some changeover and I think it’s pretty significant.”

Things to watch for with the Blues:

GOALIE SHUFFLE: Just like last year, there’s no true No. 1 with Brian Elliott and Jake Allen sharing duties. The 25-year-old Allen missed a chance to seize the job last spring when he failed to raise his level in the playoffs.

TOP THREAT: Vladimir Tarasenko had a breakout season with 37 goals and was rewarded with an eight-year, $60 million contract. The 23-year-old winger is by far the Blues’ most dangerous scoring option and said he won’t let the money affect his play. “I never worry about it,” Tarasenko said. “If you play good, you play good.”

NEW FACES: Brouwer and center Kyle Brodziak add a physical element that was perhaps lacking a bit last season. Brouwer has three 20-plus goal seasons and Brodziak, acquired from Minnesota, fills a checking role. Veteran forward Scottie Upshall got a one-year, two-way deal after being coming to camp as a tryout. Rookie forward Robby Fabbri, a first-round pick last year, will get an early look. Another promising youngster, forward Ty Rattie, begins the year at Chicago of the AHL.

RECOVERY WARD: Forward Jori Lehteri bounced back quickly from ankle surgery and opens the season without restrictions. Another forward, Patrik Berglund, could miss half of the season following shoulder surgery.

TRACK RECORD: The Blues won the Central Division last season and Hitchcock, fourth on the career list with 708 regular-season wins, has consistently had the team near the top of the standings. “He is our coach, tough cookies if you don’t like it,” Backes said. “From my experience, he puts together one heck of a game plan.”