Now 34, Letestu suited up 72 times for the Cleveland Monsters of the AHL last season and was their best player on many nights. The veteran center ended up with 50 points in the regular season and another five in the playoffs, showing that he certainly isn’t finished just yet. There was a time not too long ago that Letestu was a solid depth option for the Columbus Blue Jackets and Edmonton Oilers, routinely scoring double-digit goals and somewhere around 30 points. His transition to the minor leagues would only help the Manitoba Moose and provide some injury insurance for the Jets throughout the year.
In any successful NHL organization, minor league development systems are incredibly important. Some of that is based on the coaching staff and playing opportunity, but many believe that some level of success is also required to prepare young players for the next level. That’s why teams go out and sign veteran minor league options on day one of free agency, even if bigger names are still out there. That’s exactly what might happen with Mark Letestu, who is looking for a two-way contract and has now been linked to the New York Rangers by both Larry Brooks of the New York Post and Aaron Portzline of The Athletic. Letestu plans on playing somewhere this season as he comes off his first minor league season in a decade.
Now 34, Letestu suited up 72 times for the Cleveland Monsters of the AHL last season and was their best player on many nights. The veteran center ended up with 50 points in the regular season and another five in the playoffs, showing that he certainly isn’t finished just yet. There was a time not too long ago that Letestu was a solid depth option for the Columbus Blue Jackets and Edmonton Oilers, routinely scoring double-digit goals and somewhere around 30 points. His transition to the minor leagues would only help the Hartford Wolf Pack, who finished dead last in the Atlantic Division last season with a 29-36-11 record.
Letestu obviously has a connection with new Rangers president John Davidson, who joined New York after years building the Blue Jackets into a solid organization from top to bottom. Brooks suggests that the team could offer the pending free agent forward a minor league guarantee between $400-500K given there is no salary cap at that level, a strategy that he believes may be brought up in the next CBA talks.
Free agency is now less than a month away from opening up and there are quite a few prominent players set to hit the open market while many teams have key restricted free agents to re-sign. Columbus does have a few important restricted free agents, but it’s the unrestricted free agents that have dominated the press over the last year.
Key Restricted Free Agents: D Zach Werenski – The defenseman wraps up his entry-level deal and now is expected to get quite a pay raise after making $1.775MM last season. The top pairing defenseman may not have the accolades and numbers that partner Seth Jones carries, but with the way the market has been rising, the 21-year-old blueliner could seriously cash in this summer and could conceivably make even more than Jones’ current $5.4MM per year deal. Regardless, Werenski had a solid season for the Blue Jackets, posting 11 goals and 44 points and has scored 38 goals over three seasons, an impressive feat for a young defenseman. Werenski also added a goal and six points in 10 games during Columbus’ playoff run this season.
D – Ryan Murray – Other than playing 82 games back in 2015-16, Murray’s biggest problem has been staying healthy. Other than that one season, the most games the 25-year-old has played was 66 and that was back in his rookie campaign. The talented blueliner played in 56 games this past season, but was hampered with a back injury for quite some time as well. This is Murray’s last year as a restricted free agency as he could become an unrestricted free agent in 2020-21 and could opt to depart. Although Murray has shown talent, Columbus might have a problem handing the former second-overall pick in 2012 a long-term deal if he can’t stay healthy. That’s why Murray could be a solid trade candidate, most recently to Chicago.
Other RFAs: D Adam Clendening, F Markus Hannikainen, D Scott Harrington, G Joonas Korpisalo, F Ryan MacInnis, F Sonny Milano, F Eric Robinson, F Justin Scott, F Lukas Sedlak, D Doyle Somerby, F Sam Vigneault
Key Unrestricted Free Agents: F Artemi Panarin – The 27-year-old has been everything that Columbus had hoped for when the Blue Jackets traded for him two years ago. Panarin scored 55 goals and 114 points over those two seasons, but it became apparently clear that he had little interest in signing any sort of extension and wished to move on when he hit unrestricted free agency. Rather than trade him away, the team chose instead to hold onto him and bulk up for the playoffs, which did allow Columbus to advance to the second round of the playoffs for the first time ever. Unfortunately, the team has no chance to sign him as he has quickly become the most sought-after free agent, most likely to sign a deal with either Florida or the New York Rangers.
G Sergei Bobrovsky – Unfortunately for Bobrovsky, the team is in the exact same pickle that they are with Panarin. The long-time goaltender has been one of the faces of the franchise for years in Columbus and while many initially thought he just was holding out for a Carey Price-like contract, it has been quite clear that he too intends to leave the Blue Jackets and sign elsewhere with many people believing that he might choose to sign with Florida as well. Regardless, Bobrovsky becomes the most highly-touted goalie on the free-agent market. While his regular season numbers took a minor dip with a 2.58 GAA and a .913 save percentage, the 30-year-old netminder finally showed some skill in the playoffs with a 2.41 GAA and a .925 save percentage in 10 appearances.
F – Matt Duchene – If there is one big-name free agent that Columbus might be able to retain, it will be Duchene, who is at least considering staying with the Blue Jackets. Unfortunately, there are also a large number of teams that are interested in signing him as well, which could make a signing tough. Acquired at the trade deadline from Ottawa for several prospects and their 2019 first-round pick, Duchene added a second-line center presence that helped solidify the team’s top six and between the two teams combined for 31 goals and 70 points. The down side of signing him is the team would lose their 2020 first-rounder as well, making it even more of a challenging decisions for the franchise.
Projected Cap Space: Cap space is definitely not an issue in Columbus as the team is projected to have more than $32MM in cap room. The problem is the team is likely to lose all four of their top unrestricted free agents and must find a way to attract other free agents without having to overpay them. However, that will be a challenge for general manager Jarmo Kekalainen, who has done an excellent job in recent years to compete in a small market. Regardless, the team must find a way to add a top talent and hope that its prospect depth can keep the team above water for the next couple of years.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
The Columbus Blue Jackets will welcome back a familiar face today, as the team has recalled veteran forward Mark Letestu. Letestu has spent the entire 2018-19 season in the minor leagues, recording 26 points in 39 games for the Cleveland Monsters. The team has also activated Markus Hannikainen off of injured reserve.
It wasn’t so long ago that Letestu was a valuable depth center for the Edmonton Oilers, recording 35 points in the 2016-17 season and then trailing only Leon Draisaitl in playoff scoring for the team. That performance was quickly followed by some disappointing results for the veteran, and Letestu found himself fighting for a job last summer. After attending training camp on a professional tryout with the Florida Panthers, Letestu settled for a two-way contact and a placement in the minor leagues. Not complaining for a minute, he’s been an important part of the Monsters forward group all season, and sits fourth in team scoring.
A few days from his 34th birthday, it’s unlikely that Letestu plays a big role on the Blue Jackets this season. His recall is likely only insurance while center Boone Jenner deals with an injury that “flared up” after practice yesterday, but there is something to say about having that kind of experience at hand in the minor leagues. Letestu has played 558 games in the NHL and always been an effective two-way option, something that teams are always looking for down the stretch. Since the roster limits are relaxed after the trade deadline, perhaps Letestu will be kept in the NHL as an extra body at times when the Blue Jackets are dealing with minor injuries.
It’s the last day of September and the start of the regular season is mere days away. Final cuts are looming and the decisions are going to get much tougher. While the drama really lies with the waiver wire over the next few days, keep track here of all the players otherwise sent down right here:
Buffalo Sabres (via team Twitter)
Carolina Hurricanes (via CapFriendly)
Chicago Blackhawks (per CapFriendly)
Columbus Blue Jackets (per team release)
G Jean-Francois Berube (to Cleveland, AHL)
D Tommy Cross (to Cleveland, AHL)
F Zac Dalpe (to Cleveland, AHL)
F Dan DeSalvo (to Cleveland, AHL)
F Nathan Gerbe (to Cleveland, AHL)
F Miles Koules (to Cleveland, AHL)
F Mark Letestu (to Cleveland, AHL)
F Ryan MacInnis (to Cleveland, AHL)
D Michael Prapavessis (to Cleveland, AHL)
D Dillon Simpson (to Cleveland, AHL)
F Sam Vigneault (to Cleveland, AHL)
D Justin Wade (to Cleveland, AHL)
Dallas Stars (via Mark Stepneski of NHL.com)
Detroit Red Wings (per team Twitter update)
F Jussi Jokinen (released from PTO, via MLive’s Ansar Khan)
F David Pope (to Grand Rapids, AHL)
D Vili Saarijarvi (to Grand Rapids, AHL)
G Harri Sateri (to Grand Rapids, AHL)
F Givani Smith (to Grand Rapids, AHL)
F Dominic Turgeon (to Grand Rapids, AHL)
F Filip Zadina (to Grand Rapids, AHL)
Edmonton Oilers (per team Twitter update)
D Jakub Jerabek (awaiting assignment)
Montreal Canadiens (per team release)
G Charlie Lindgren (to Montreal, AHL)
New York Rangers (per team Twitter update)
D Brandon Crawley (to Hartford, AHL)
Philadelphia Flyers (per team release)
Tampa Bay Lightning (per team release)
D Andreas Borgman (to Toronto, AHL)
F Jeremy Bracco (to Toronto, AHL)
F Adam Brooks (to Toronto, AHL)
F Emerson Clark (to Toronto, AHL)
F Rich Clune (to Toronto, AHL)
F Pierre Engvall (to Toronto, AHL)
F Colin Greening (to Toronto, AHL)
F Carl Grundstrom (to Toronto, AHL)
D Timothy Liljegren (to Toronto, AHL)
F Mason Marchment (to Toronto, AHL)
F Trevor Moore (to Toronto, AHL)
D Calle Rosen (to Toronto, AHL)
F Dmytro Timashov (to Toronto, AHL)
D Sean Durzi (from Toronto, AHL to Owen Sound, OHL)
D Mac Hollowell (from Toronto, AHL to Sault Ste. Marie, OHL)
Washington Capitals (via The Athletic’s Chris Kuk)
Center Mark Letestu is returning to the Blue Jackets. The team announced that they’ve signed him to a one-year, two-way contract and have placed him on waivers for the purpose of sending him to their AHL affiliate in Cleveland. CapFriendly reports (Twitter link) that the deal will pay $750K at the NHL level, $300K in the minors, and contains a guarantee of $350K.
The 33-year-old spent most of last season with Edmonton before being dealt to Columbus in advance of the trade deadline to give them some more depth down the middle. Between the two teams, he played in 80 games, scoring nine goals and 14 assists while averaging 12:51 per night in ice time. However, that was a big drop in his production as in 2016-17, he collected 35 points (16-19-35, a career high) and that likely played a role in him not landing a guaranteed deal until now. Letestu attended training camp with Florida but was cut earlier this week.
The veteran is still an above average player at the faceoff dot, winning 53.3% of his draws last season and has a career mark of 52.1%. Accordingly, when the Blue Jackets suffer an injury or two down the middle, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them turn to Letestu as they know he can hold down a fourth line role without too much trouble, assuming he passes through waivers unclaimed on Friday.
Another key checkpoint has been reached in Seattle’s quest to be awarded an expansion NHL franchise. The NHL to Seattle group announced that Seattle City Council unanimously approved their $700MM privately-financed proposal to renovate KeyArena to be the home for the team. Now with an arena agreement in place and approved, the focus now turns to getting the franchise awarded. Representatives from the Seattle group are expected to meet with part of the Board of Governors on October 2nd but a full vote on their expansion application isn’t expected until sometime in December at the earliest.
More from around the hockey world:
- The Blues received a scare on Sunday when winger Robby Fabbri had to leave after one period following a lower-body injury. Considering he has missed the bulk of the last two seasons with ACL tears, some were understandable fearing the worst. Fortunately, the news isn’t too bad as the team announced (Twitter link) that the 22-year-old is listed as day-to-day with a Grade One groin sprain. He’s not expected to suit up tomorrow night but could potentially be back by the end of the preseason. While it’s certainly concerning that he’s missing time already, it could have been a whole lot worse.
- Coyotes center Laurent Dauphin is getting close to being cleared for contact following offseason knee surgery, notes Craig Morgan of The Athletic (via Twitter). He split last year primarily between Chicago and Arizona’s AHL affiliates but already has 34 career NHL contests under his belt. If he is available near the start of the season, he could certainly push for a roster spot given their sudden uncertainty down the middle due to recent injuries. If the team wants to send him back to the minors, he will have to first pass through waivers.
- Following his release from the Panthers earlier today, unrestricted free agent center Mark Letestu plans to take a few days to assess how rosters are shaping up around the league before determining his next move, reports Aaron Portzline of The Athletic (Twitter link). The 33-year-old is still a reliable player at the faceoff dot and is only one year removed from scoring 16 goals in Edmonton. Portzline adds that a return to Columbus where he finished last season is a possibility though it may have to be on a two-way contract.
September 13th: Sportsnet’s Mark Spector reports that Upshall failed his physical with the Oilers today. Upshall has been dealing with a knee injury and did not report to training camp at full strength. While this does not cancel out his PTO, it certainly hurts his chances of landing a contract, despite Edmonton’s need for veteran leadership and penalty killing ability. It is uncertain when Upshall will be ready to fully participate, with Spector speculating it could be “a few weeks”. In the meantime, Upshall will be unable to show that he is still in NHL shape and will likely lose his roster spot to a younger player or potentially another veteran brought in to replace him.
August 19th: It’s officially PTO season. After the Florida Panthers made Mark Letestu the first notable name signed to a professional tryout agreement this off-season with an agreement last week, the Edmonton Oilers have now joined in on the action. The team announced this afternoon that they come to terms with veteran forward Scottie Upshall on a PTO. The Oilers are not overflowing with forward depth, making the Alberta native’s odds of landing a contract relatively good.
This move comes as little surprise in regards to Upshall. The 34-year-old has been down this road before; he played on not one but two PTO’s last fall, first joining the Vancouver Canucks before eventually returning to the St. Louis Blues and earning a contract. He again stands a good chance of winning a spot, this time with Edmonton. Gone are the days when Upshall could produce 30+ points every year, but he still does everything else well. A smart, hard-working forward, Upshall can still give a team modest offense – he scored 19 points in 63 games last year – but it is his two-way play that keeps him valuable. Upshall was one of the Blues’ primary penalty killers last season and still plays with energy, grit, and toughness.
Ironically, Upshall’s frequent running mate in St. Louis, both five-on-five and shorthanded, was Kyle Brodziak, who signed with Edmonton earlier this summer. It seems likely that the Oilers considered that when inviting Upshall to camp. St. Louis was not a league leader in killing penalties or fourth line production last season, but the chemistry between Upshall and Brodziak would nevertheless be a major boost for Edmonton. In moving on from Letestu, the Oilers lost their leading penalty killer from last season. They would also likely enjoy not having to deploy Ryan Nugent-Hopkins while man-down as frequently as they did in 2017-18. Upshall could fit in nicely alongside Brodziak both on the bottom line and the PK, so long as he looks like he can still keep up in his sixteenth year in the league. This could end up being a shrewd PTO pickup by GM Peter Chiarelli and company.
Professional tryout season is upon us, and the Florida Panthers have announced that veteran center Mark Letestu will join them in training camp this year. A “PTO” as it is referred to is an agreement to have a player in camp without any obligation to sign them to an NHL contract. Many players on tryouts will eventually earn a deal somewhere—though, as the Edmonton Oilers found out not necessarily with the team they’re working with—but nothing is guaranteed for Letestu this time around. The 33-year old will be battling for his NHL life after spending the end of last season with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Aaron Portzline of The Athletic in fact tweets that if Letestu can’t find a one-way deal with the Panthers, there could still be a two-way contract waiting for him in Columbus. The two sides had talks recently, and the veteran center had several two-way contract offers. Though last season didn’t go as planned first in Edmonton and then Columbus, there is a good chance that Letestu can still be an effective player. It was just two seasons ago that he recorded 16 goals and 35 points for the Oilers before being one of their best players in the postseason.
For a Panthers team that is looking to compete in a tough Atlantic Division, giving a chance like this to Letestu makes sense. The team isn’t incredibly deep down the middle, and has several unproven young players trying to lock down spots in the bottom-six. Battling out a veteran like Letestu for that opportunity can only improve their performance, and there is a real possibility that he has enough left in the tank to contribute this season. For what would likely be a one-way contract under $1MM, he may be able to snag a spot on the Panthers roster.
With just one day left in July, free agents have had a month to find employment in the NHL. Last summer, there were less than 20 unrestricted free agents signed after the end of July through the beginning of the regular season. This off-season, there are a plethora of notable names left on the market, but at this point is is unlikely that they all find a new home in the league. The question now is how many of these top names get lucky.
Rick Nash could find a landing spot if he wanted to. The six-time All-Star is currently evaluating his future in hockey versus his health after suffering yet another concussion this season. Should he decide to return, he would likely have more than a few teams interested in a short-term deal.
If Nash opts not to return, the top-scoring forward from last season left on the market is actually Mike Cammalleri. Cammalleri, 36, quietly put up 29 points last season after a hot start with the Los Angeles Kings and then a trade to the Edmonton Oilers. The former point-per-game player is not quite that kind of scorer any more, but could still contribute to a number of teams.
Benoit Pouliot was a perennial 30-point player until he turned 30 and has struggled the past two years. In the right situation, he could still make an impact. The same goes for Mark Letestu, Drew Stafford and Jannik Hansen. Ales Hemsky was highly productive before injuries derailed his career, but remains a possible high-ceiling gamble if back at 100%.
Other available forwards bring more of a two-way game such as Daniel Winnik, Scott Hartnell, Scottie Upshall, Chris Stewart, Antoine Vermette, Jussi Jokinen, Tommy Wingels, Jason Chimera, Joel Ward, Dominic Moore, Matt Stajan, and Lee Stempniak. There are also some younger options like Alex Chiasson, Nick Shore, Logan Shaw, Tomas Jurco, and Freddie Hamilton.
On the blue line, Luca Sbisa is reportedly drawing interest from several teams across the league. Although he suited up for just 30 games with the Vegas Golden Knights, he managed to register 14 points and plays a strong checking game. It would seem that Sbisa is in line for a contract at some point.
But what about Toby Enstrom? A free agent for the first time in his long career, the well-respected veteran was expected to land a contract early on but still remains unemployed. Enstrom has always been a reliable presence on the back end, but at 33 years old, he has shown signs of slowing down.
Other aging options on defense include Alexei Emelin, Johnny Oduya, Kevin Bieksa, Dennis Seidenberg, Kyle Quincey, Paul Martin, Josh Gorges, and Jason Garrison. However, experience may not be able to outweigh ability with many younger defenseman still out there. Brandon Davidson, Cody Franson, and Paul Postma seem like players who should be signed, while Justin Falk, Frank Corrado, Ryan Sproul, and Duncan Siemens are all intriguing targets as well.
In net, the options are pretty straightforward. One would think that Kari Lehtonen, Steve Mason, and Ondrej Pavelec had all done enough in their careers to earn a continued stay in the NHL, especially when there are no other legitimate goaltenders available at this point. Yet, its hard to pinpoint three teams that need another option in goal. These three keepers may need to wait until injuries strike to find work.
So, how many of these remaining free agents will sign before the season starts?