The board game Sorry! can be a maddening experience.
Just when you’re about to move one of your Hershey’s Kiss-shaped pawns into the “Safety Zone,” an opponent invariably draws an 11-card and swaps positions with you on the board. Or lucks into a SORRY card that sends you home. All that progress around the board, the anticipation of victory … and poof!
You’re back to square one.
On Nov. 8, the Pittsburgh Penguins traded Mark Letestu to the Columbus Blue Jackets. The deal sent Letestu from the second-best team in the NHL — an organization that is a perennial Stanley Cup favorite — to the league’s worst outfit, a dead-last team that lost eight games in a row to start the season and at one point had the worst record (2-11-1) of any professional hockey team, minors included, in North America.
Letestu had been traded for the first time in his life. And he dropped 29 places in the standings.
“At the time, you’re giving up a chance to play for a Stanley Cup because that’s just the way Pittsburgh is every year,” said Letestu, who signed with the Penguins in 2007 after one stellar season at Western Michigan. “In Pittsburgh, when Sid (Sidney Crosby) or Geno (Evgeni Malkin) (were injured), I knew I was going in. With those guys getting healthy, it was just kind of natural to bump me out. At least I’ve got a job and I’m somewhat comfortable now.”
It’s a word that means one thing for Crosby and Malkin: players with millions in the bank, millions more scheduled and no threat that they’ll be traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets. But for Letestu, a young husband with a five month-old son and a reputation as a mid-level forward with a little scoring punch, “comfortable” means simply having an NHL contract for more than one year — which Letestu does, though his expires after next season.
“I just played my 100th game a couple weeks ago,” Letestu said. “Especially when you never think you’re going to get one game, and then you get your first you want another one. It’s kind of a cool thing. I’m still trying to establish myself; there’s still something to learn every day about how to be a pro, it seems.”
To play in Columbus might seem like a nightmare; but not for a guy who simply wants an opportunity to play regularly and prove he’s worth another contract. The Jackets are 7-7-2 since Letestu arrived.
“He’s spent a lot of time (among the top-six forwards),” said Aaron Portzline, who covers the Blue Jackets for the Columbus Post-Dispatch. “I think he’s a well-liked guy in terms of being a good character guy; I think he’s highly-regarded. The question mark with him is where does he fit in? What type of player is he? You see moments where you think, ‘OK, this guy can play in the top-six with really good linemates on a good team’ but then you wonder if he fits into the bottom-six?
“Honestly, I think his skill level is a reach to be in the top-six on a really good team. He might be a ‘tweener’ on a really good team. I think Pittsburgh liked him; they just didn’t know where he fit.”
Here’s a wacky stat: Letestu’s power play goal in St. Louis on Dec. 18th was his team-leading fourth of the season. “Not Jeff Carter, not (Rick) Nash, not (R.J.) Umberger,” Portzline said, rattling off the names of highly-paid and much-hyped Blue Jackets, one of whom should probably be the rightful owner of Letestu’s statistic.
“The last couple games I’ve played right wing, so they’ve moved me up and down the lineup,” Letestu said. “I’ve played the point on the power play. The whole roster seems like it’s centers here, so the ability to be able to play all over the lineup is key.”
Pittsburgh leaves a mark
To leave the Penguins meant to leave perhaps the best team, certainly the best coach, arguably the best player and memories of an appearance on HBO’s 24/7 behind-the-scenes series that will go down as one of the funniest in the show’s short history (start at 2:30 mark):
“Tons from there, obviously,” Letestu said when asked what he takes with him from the Penguins. “I had Dan (Bylsma) for the better part of five years as a coach. Obviously, the practice habits and the work ethic that comes with having to play (for) him and what’s required to play from him.”
What about WMU?
Letestu says he’s paid attention to the Broncos’ success the last two seasons.
“I couldn’t recite the roster player-for-player or recruit-for-recruit, but I know they’re playing well and went to The Joe last year,” Letestu said. “Somebody I was talking to recently said that (Dan DeKeyser) might be the best defensive prospect in college among free agents.”
Like DeKeyser, Letestu was also a 21 year-old free agent at WMU who generated NHL interest. Some observers might suggest Letestu could have used another season to mature, but he has no regrets. His route to the NHL might have taken a little longer than it will for DeKeyser, who could play immediately, but Letestu has not only arrived — he’s still here.
Even if it is Columbus.