NASHVILLE – There are so many questions that we have for Jori Lehtera:
How do he and Vladimir Tarasenko communicate on the ice?
What does he think about being the center for the NHL’s hottest young star?
What was it like when the two met with Sibir Novosibirsk in the Kontinental Hockey League? Were they simpatico right away?
Sadly, we didn’t find out, because Lehtera, after back-to-back losses last week and a long morning of meetings, left Bridgestone Arena quickly to catch the team bus to the airport. If there’s any problem with Lehtera – who has turned into probably the most underrated signing of the offseason, it’s how he handles back-to-backs. This would be par for the course.
“He never played back-to-back, so his back-to-back experience has been very trying for him,” coach Ken Hitchcock said. “I’m not 100 percent sure, but I don’t think he has played back-to-back games as a professional, and it’s been getting used to that.”
So Lehtera, who has 22 points in 26 games in his first NHL season, has a slight weakness. But without him, it’s hard to see Tarasenko turning into such a highlight machine. Watch most of the Russian’s 17 goals, and Lehtera is often in the background celebrating with him.
When Lehtera is on the ice, he wins 52 percent of his faceoffs. At 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, he provides the type of size you need at center.
And at the value price of $2.75 million per season over two years, he’s giving St. Louis a strong middleman to match up against the Los Angeles Kings, Chicago Blackhawks, Anaheim Ducks and all the other top teams in the Western Conference. He’s also an upgrade on what St. Louis had before.
“He’s a huge pickup for us,” said captain David Backes. “Losing a guy like Vladimir Sobotka who played a lot of big minutes for us, and did a lot of those hard-nosed tasks,being able to plug in Jori and his work ethic and playmaking ability, it has been probably a necessary acquisition with losing Sobotka.”
See one guy jet for the KHL, get a better guy in return. Fair trade? Not for the rest of the league.
Lehtera’s symmetry with Tarasenko seems odd, but understandable. The two played together with Sibir in the KHL in 2011-12. That season, Tarasenko played just 39 games – not a ton of time to gain chemistry with anyone. Meanwhile, he played 102 games with the Blues in 2012-13 and 2013-14 and couldn’t find the right center to push his prodigious talents upwards.
Enter Lehtera, who is responsible enough in his own end to let Tarasenko make a dazzling spectacle of himself offensively.
“He’s a really good guy offensively, and he’ll pass the puck if he sees me. But he’s really good on defense too, so it will help us a lot,” Tarasenko said. “So we don’t need to think about defense sometimes, because Jori is so good.”
According to Lehtera’s teammates, his overall ability was clear early in training camp. There was no “who is this dude from the KHL those idiots in management brought in on a big deal?” The Blues signed him as a restricted free agent on July 1. It was obvious that he could help the Blues immediately.
“I think his work ethic from Day 1 at practice at camp was eye-opening,” Backes said. “It was like ‘this guy works his butt off’ and just his compete level every drill, being matched up against them, you say if this guy can keep this up, he’s going to be a great impact player for us.”
Because of the 26-year-old Lehtera, who actually was a third round St. Louis draft pick in 2008, the Blues have been able to overcome a slow start from $7 million free agent center signee Paul Stastny, and see Tarasenko flourish in the process.
Overall it’s a big win for the organization. And let’s face it … there aren’t very many back-to-back games in the playoffs, which is really the only season that matters for the Blues.
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