At long last, St. Louis Blues fans will be able to see 26 year-old Jori Lehtera play with the blue note on his chest. After seven years developing his game with Tappara of the Finnish Elite League and Sibir Novoibirsk of the Kontinetal Hockey League, Lehtera has once again made the decision to test his game in North America.
The possibility of Lehtera finally returning to North America to play for the Blues abruptly started after General Manager Doug Armstrong met with the Finnish forward during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Per Jeremy Rutherford’s column for The St. Louis Post Dispatch, Armstrong said that he "had a good chat with him (Lehtera) quite honestly at the Olympics at the dining hall."
"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)," Armstrong said.
That mistake is now rectified after Lehtera and the Blues agreed to a 2-year, one-way contract worth $5.5 million over the summer. However, unlike in 2008-2009 when he signed an entry-level deal with the Peoria Rivermen (the Blues former AHL affiliate), Lehtera will be counted on to fill a top-9 role with the Blues this upcoming season.
Coach Ken Hitchcock and General Manager Doug Armstrong Describe Jori Lehtera
On July 1st, 2014, St. Louis Blues play-by-play announcer John Kelly spoke with Head Coach Ken Hitchcock to discuss the team’s recent acquisitions. When asked to briefly summarize Lehtera’s game, Hitchcock described the playmaker in two words: hockey sense and gamesmanship.
"He’s a smart player who knows how to play the game. He’s a guy that every coach that puts him out on the ice trusts," Hitchcock said. "He (Lehtera) knows how to do all the little things offensively and defensively to help you win hockey games."
Two weeks later, Hitchcock reiterated this sentiment in an interview conducted by NHL.com correspondent Dan Rosen:
"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," Hitchcock said.
The reason Hitchcock doesn’t specifically state what position Lehtera will play or which line he will play on is due to his versatility as a player. His versatility to play either the center or wing position provides Hitchcock and the Blues with an aspect of the game all NHL teams covet: options.
Image above is a screenshot from a live chat conducted on St. Louis Post Dispatch
Furthermore, Lehtera has earned a reputation as a playmaker, utilizing his excellent vision on the ice to make difficult passes look easy. Armstrong described Lehtera to St. Louis Post Dispatch writer Jeremy Rutherford as "big body, 6-2, 210 — (with) very, very soft hands, a very good passer."
"He's a guy that can find players. I watched him at the World Championships give some guys some back-door tap ins on the power play. He's just an offensive players where his strengths are his passing skills," Armstrong said.
Nevertheless, Lehtera’s ability to adjust to the NHL’s physical, fast-paced style of play will factor in to how much ice time he’ll receive.
There is no denying that Lehtera has the offensive skills to be a successful point producer in the NHL. As previously mentioned, Lehtera has soft hands and excellent vision on the ice. His above average hockey IQ, coupled with his excellent passing ability, provides him with the tools to make plays in both the offensive and defensive zones. At times, Lehtera can get over aggressive in the defensive zone when he contests the puck carrier, but that can be fixed with coaching. Still, his hockey IQ and playmaking skills make him a strong candidate to receive time on the power play (likely on the 2nd unit) and penalty kill. Even though he doesn’t possess the hardest shot or the quickest release (average), Lehtera makes up for it with an accurate shot.
The one aspect of Lehtera’s game that leaves a lot to be desired is his skating, which can be considered his greatest weakness. While Lehtera can produce a quick first step, he isn’t close to possessing top-end speed. He also needs to do a better job at skating with speed when in possession of the puck and coming through the neutral zone/into the offensive zone. At times, Lehtera can be lackadaisical on his skates as he positions himself too upright in his skating stance. This creates a decrease in skating stability, which is an important aspect in switching from back skating to forward skating. Although this doesn’t occur in Lehtera’s game frequently, and rarely happens when he battles for puck possession along the boards, more skilled and faster players can take advantage while on their breakout if they notice Lehtera isn’t in a balanced stance. Overall, Lehtera’s skating can be considered average with room for improvement.
Jori Lehtera projects to fit in well on the Blues top-9 and has the potential to play in the top-6. He can also be a key component on the power play and serviceable penalty killer when needed. Since Lehtera spent some time on a line with Vladamir Tarasenko in the KHL, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him initially centering the Jaden Schwartz-Vladamir Tarasenko pairing to see if there’s any layover chemistry.