|2010 - Mark Letestu||9||4||3||7||4||2||2||0||2||25|
On a team highlighted by high draft choices, celebrated talents and Stanley Cup winners, where does a relatively unknown, undrafted rookie fit in? In the forefront, naturally.
Defying all expectations, Pittsburgh Penguins center Mark Letestu is off to a tremendous start to his rookie campaign. Through nine games, the 25-year-old has three assists and four goals, two of them game-winning.
Goal and assist totals probably won't be what makes or breaks the season for Letestu, however. It will come down to things that don't quite jump out of the headlines or the box score.
For example, through eight games this season, Letestu ranks second on the Penguins in faceoffs, winning a solid 51.5% of his draws taken with only Sidney Crosby faring better in the circle. Additionally, Letestu is operating at a +4, good enough for fourth on the roster, and has quickly seen his ice time increase, working his way up to an average of 15:21 of ice time per game, fourth among Penguins forwards.
Letestu has gone from barely making the team as a fourth-liner to centering Evgeni Malkin on the second line and working his way onto the second power play unit. Part of his increased role is due to his surge in production, but another part is because of his tendency to get the little things right. For Letestu, it's all about the work ethic.
"My parents taught me how to work, and that's kind of how I've gotten here and I think that's why I'm getting success," said the 25-year-old Letestu, who scored 21 goals in the AHL last season. "Maybe I'm capable of something we weren't sure about."
Letestu's confidence, work ethic and his intelligence on the ice suggest there may be more to him than meets the eye. For example, take a look at a play that I highlighted in our recap of the recent Penguins vs. Islanders game:
Letestu does several things right here and highlights strengths he's quickly shown as a player.
The first thing is dealing with Deryk Engelland's breakout pass. Letestu is flying through the zone, and when Engelland's hard pass comes he decides to chip it deep and keep his momentum going instead of trying to corral the puck. What this does is take advantage of Islanders defenseman Mike Mottau's aggression. Mottau is up high in the neutral zone, clogging up the center. By Letestu chipping it deep, and using his speed, he takes advantage of a vast open space behind the Islanders defense and puts the Penguins on the attack deep in enemy territory.
By chipping and going, you can see Letestu get to the puck first by a mile. He gains possession, makes a fake step up the boards and then chips it behind the net. This sucks Mottau away from the puck and leaves space behind the net for the oncoming Eric Tangradi, who does a good job of supporting Letestu.
As Tangradi begins to peel out from behind the net, Letestu starts heading to the front. Now you have three Islanders defenders and Evgeni Malkin screening Islanders goalie Rick DiPietro, with Letestu poaching at the side of the net. Tangradi's ensuing shot would manage to hit a skate and through the magic of traffic, the Penguins earned a goal.
Luck? Some. Good execution? Definitely.
Simple things like using space, winning the race to the puck, and habitually going to the net - Letestu does them on a regular basis and this solid base of offensive fundamentals have quickly made him an important part of the Penguins roster.
When Jordan Staal and Arron Asham eventually return to the lineup, Ray Shero and Dan Bylsma will face difficult decisions. Who to scratch? Who to demote? Letestu's impressive performances have all but redacted his name from any of these dire discussions. For an unheralded rookie, that's a pretty good place to start.