Letestu’s star a year in the making

by Lindsay Kramer || NHL.com

Lindsay Kramer, the AHL correspondent for NHL.com, profiles an up-and-coming player each Monday during the season, and his AHL notebook appears each Thursday on NHL.com.

head-letestu_200.jpgWilkes-Barre/Scranton center Mark Letestu was part of a Penguins group that recently visited an area elementary school for a pizza party. The event was the payoff for a reading program.

The first-graders mildly were interested in the players, but reserved their enthusiasm for the real celebrity of the appearance.

"They wanted to know if the mascot was coming," Letestu said. "Tux was on his way. They were more interested in him than us. He showed up, they went nuts."

Well, children go to school to be educated, and if they start following hockey in the near future, they’ll learn Letestu was the true guest to get worked up about. He’s one of those overnight stars who has been more than a year in the making.

Letestu has piled up 43 points (16-27) in his last 36 games, a stretch that almost immediately followed a steady diet of healthy scratches.

His 20 goals for the season are two more than the total number of points he posted in 52 games as a rookie for the Pens last season, when his former coach told him he had no clue about the pro game.

You can have your Penguins mascot. In Wilkes-Barre/Scranton coach Todd Reirden’s estimation, Letestu is a living, breathing poster boy.

"He’s definitely been a player I will use as an example for my coaching career, going on from here," Reirden said. "When it doesn’t come as easy, it’s a little sweeter when it does come."

Garth Letestu always tried to instill in his son how important it was to milk his hockey ability for a chance at a good life, or at least an improvement on the one that could have awaited him in his tiny hometown of Elk Point, Alta. Elk Point is oil territory, and Garth works in the safety end of that business.

It’s an honorable but hard career. One summer, Mark was a little slow looking for a job and Garth asked his then-teenaged son to work with him. Mark’s title was "swamper," which is about as glamorous as it sounds. Mark basically was a labor grunt, helping to operate machinery and cleaning up afterward.

"I think it was more him trying to detour me from it (that type of work)," Mark said. "The one summer, that was enough for me. It was off to school and hockey. An experience like that makes you realize what you have."

Problem was, when it came to hockey potential, Mark had some, but not a lot. He never rose above Tier II junior and wasn’t much of a recruiting commodity before Western Michigan gave him a chance. Limited options often bring out the best in people, and the opportunistic Letestu produced 24 goals and 22 assists as a freshman.

"I always thought of playing hockey as a career," he said. "I wasn’t good at much else."

Letestu’s edge was that at age 21, he was a freshman with a mature game. Pittsburgh took note and made him a free-agent offer.

To say a hard sell wasn’t necessary would be an understatement. Letestu nearly keeled over in his meal when Pens GM Ray Shero called him in the school cafeteria.

"I don’t think I said too much," Letestu recalled. "I said, ‘Yeah, uh-huh.’ It was one of those days I’ll never forget."

letestuUnfortunately for Letestu, he soon would be dining on humble pie.

It wasn’t that Letestu lacked the raw skills. It’s just that he didn’t fully understand how much he needed to polish them. About 18 months before heading to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, he had been joyriding around Tier II.

Todd Richards, who coached Wilkes-Barre/Scranton last season, told Letestu he had to work harder and smarter. He implored Letestu to look at veterans to see how thoroughly they approached the game. Instead of getting better, Letestu just got mad.

"At the time, I was upset with him. Now I look back on it, he’s right," Letestu said of Richards. "I fast-tracked through college and pros. I didn’t know what to expect. The talent level was really good. It was a trying year. But it was the best thing for me."

Reirden, who joined the Baby Pens as a volunteer assistant for the playoffs, often was in charge of giving the scratched Letestu extra work.

"I thought he had a really good skill package," said Reirden. "He just needed to get a step quicker, and he needed more confidence. His urgency and desperation and winning puck battles, those would be things that coincide with his success. He didn’t understand how difficult it is to play in this league."

He started to pick up on that notion by the summer. Letestu said he didn’t dramatically alter his training program to morph into a legitimate AHL player. Rather, he approached a dedicated workout schedule with the drive and motivation that sticking to it would give him the desired results.

"I always thought I could be a point-a-game guy," Letestu said. "You try to stay positive and good things are going to happen for you."

His patience was far from done being tested. He still was an unknown commodity returning to a stacked Wilkes-Barre/Scranton lineup this season. New head coach Dan Bylsma saw a different, more mature Letestu, but didn’t make him a regular right away.

"When he didn’t have success, wasn’t in the lineup every day, he kept at it," said Reirden, who took over from Bylsma when the latter was promoted to head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins. "(He thought), for the time I do get my opportunity, I’m going to be ready to go."

Reirden, impressed with Letestu’s quick shot and improving game sense, was ready to exploit the emerging player. Letestu has been the hub of a dangerous second line, along with Nick Johnson and Janne Pesonen.

"My game starts with my feet. I’m not by any means a fast guy," Letestu said. "When things go right for me, I’m attacking. My game is positioning. I figured at a young age you don’t have to skate all over the ice if you’re in the right position."

After all, eventually getting to the right place is more important than how much time — real or perceived — it takes a player to arrive there.

"You see guys start out slow, gain confidence. It’s a process," Letestu said. "From an outsider perspective, it (his success) probably seems like a (quick) thing. But it’s been two years of changing my game, changing my habits. It seems like it’s been a long time since the start of the year."