In the summer of 2015 Blues center Jori Lehtera signed a 3 year 14 million dollar contract extension. He would make 2.75 million dollars in the 2015-16 season before his three year extension would kick in with a 4.7 million dollar average yearly cap hit.
In 2015 Lehtera was coming off his first season with the Blues. He had caught the eye of many Blues fans while centering the red hot line of Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz. During that year he logged 14 goals and 30 assists in 75 regular season games as well as 2 helpers in 5 playoff games.
Things were looking good for the Finnish forward. His defensively responsible game had made him a favorite of coach Ken Hitchcock while his chemistry with franchise player Tarasenko had caught the eye of Blues general manager Doug Armstrong. Unfortunately, Lehtera’s first season with the Blues would also prove to be his best-to-date.
When Doug Armstrong signed Lehtera to a more than generous extension it is pretty obvious what he was thinking. He was hoping to get a permanent setup man for Tarasenko at a reasonable price and prove to Tarasenko before his upcoming contract negotiations that the Blues were committed to keeping his new best friend on the roster.
By not requiring Lehtera to prove his worth for an additional season the Blues general manager took a gamble, hoping that Lehtera’s first season with the Blues would be the rule and not the exception to it. I think it’s safe to say, so far, that gamble has not paid off.
During his second season with the team Lehtera only netted 9 goals and accounted for 25 helpers, ten fewer points than the previous season. It’s not uncommon for second year players to get bogged down in a sophomore slump but it is a little harder to explain when he is constantly playing on a line with one of the best players in the league.
Unfortunately, Lehtera’s downward trend has continued. This season, the first of his new contract, he has recorded 6 goals and 13 assists all while still playing along side the number one goal scorer on the team. This missed opportunity in Monday night’s loss to Florida about sums up his entire season.
Lehtera could have literally done anything else with the puck and ended up with a better result. Instead all he did was push his shot back into the goaltender’s pads, essentially assisting on the save.
Lethera’s poor play this season has resulted in a trip to the press box as well as several demotions to the team’s third line. A spot that is actually more befitting his skill level and probably a spot he should have been playing all along.
And that is really the question that I am asking, has Lehtera’s bloated contract actually contributed to his poor play?
Think how different things would be right now if Doug Armstrong had taken a more conservative approach with Jori Lehtera. Had Armstrong waited until the following season to enter into negotiations with the unproven center one of two things would have happened.
Lehtera might have taken his game to the next level. Building on the previous season’s success. He might have improved his skating and his goal scoring ability as well as elevating the play of his two wing mates in the process. This would have more than justified his current cap hit if not a few dollars more but the Blues would have gotten a much more balanced player in the process. And hopefully a player much more in tune with his own game.
Or the front office would have realized that his freshman campaign was merely a flash in the pan and that the game was moving away from his particular set of skills. It would have allowed the Blues to possibly sign him for a much more reasonable amount. Still providing Tarasenko with his favorite setup man but giving the team much more flexibility if things went the other direction.
Judging by Lehtera’s play in the last couple of seasons I think it is fair to say that the latter scenario is the one that would have played out. And not only would the Blue’s payroll be in a much more favorable position, you have to wonder if Lehtera would be in a much better position as well.
It has become more than obvious this season, especially earlier on, that the coaching staff has been forced to put Lehtera into unfavorable matchups due primarily to his cap hit. In essence making him earn his pay instead of slotting him based solely on past performance.
It also makes you wonder if Lehtera had been allowed to slide down the lineup to a more suitable spot would he have been in a better position to make more of an impact for his team. Allowing him more of an opportunity to showcase his defensive skills as well as not requiring him to square off against the opposing team’s best defensive unit.
Instead, the Blues are handicapped by Doug Armstrong’s hasty decision. Not only is Jori Lehtera’s cap hit preventing the team from acquiring a badly needed, more talented center, they may be forced to off load the resurgent and more productive Patrik Berglund instead.
Jori Lehtera could have been a valuable asset to the Blues but due to Armstrong’s needless gamble his unjustified contract is a weight he was never fit to carry.