(HockeySTL)-- When Blues general manager Doug Armstrong looks back at the 2013-14 season, there is a good chance he looks at the 2014 Winter Olympics as one of the more significant roster-shaping happenings in the last couple of years. At a time when Armstrong was fully focused on his role as part of Team Canada’s management group, he managed to repair a collapsed bridge with a player who is now making waves in North America, Jori Lehtera.
Armstrong traveled to Sochi, Russia last year knowing that he and Lehtera would cross paths at some point. But there was little to talk about after the Finnish center declined an offer to leave the Kontinental Hockey League and come to St. Louis, to the team that drafted him in 2008. But when Armstrong and Lehtera saw each other in the Olympic Village dining hall one day, there ended up being plenty to converse about.
"I had a good chat with him at the dining hall,” Armstrong said in the offseason. “I told him that we were disappointed that we couldn't come to an agreement (last year). “He said at the end of the day, he felt he made a mistake which was the first step in saying, “well, if you can rectify that mistake, if you can get out of your contract, we'd love to have you.”
Lehtera, who had signed a two-year deal with Novosibirsk in 2013, had to pay a considerable amount out of pocket to opt out of the KHL deal, close to $1 million.
He was determined to come to North America and followed through with what he had told Armstrong, signing a two-year, $5.5 million contract with the Blues this past offseason.
Immediately upon receiving confirmation that Lehtera would be joining his club Armstrong began envisioning a line with Lehtera and 22-year-old Vladimir Tarasenko. The two had played together in the KHL and the team wanted to see if any chemistry remained. Just 16 games into the season, Tarasenko and Lehtera have provided an answer to the curiosity, combining for 37 points.
“I think the game in North America fits him,” Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock said. “He should have come over a year before, quite frankly. This game fits him. It’s a small rink, he’s got quick hands, he’s not afraid of traffic. It fits him.”
Hitchcock accompanied Armstrong and Team Canada to Russia last year and as the tournament played itself out, Lehtera caught the coach’s eye.
“I don’t think we knew until game three in the Olympics that he was an offensive player,” Hitchcock said. “I think everybody thought because he played on the left wing on the fourth line that he was a checking player. That’s where he was used early. Then there was an injury and he went up to the top line and played as an offensive player. That’s when we started to notice he had skill and moxy.
“I think he doesn’t get enough credit for how competitive he is. The moxy is what impressed me in the Olympics. We watched him very closely every game and every practice. He was their best practice player; he was one of their fiercest competitors in the game.”
But since the Blues weren’t certain Lehtera would be joining their team, they kept the process quiet, working behind the scenes on a deal. Lehtera said it was the right time for him to make the transition.
“Many, many reasons,” Lehtera said when asked why he chose this year to come to North America. “But now I’m here.”
He certainly is, as the entire NHL now knows. In seven games this month, Lehtera has ten points (four goals, six assists). Those numbers include a hat-trick from Tuesday night.
“I think I’ve never scored a hat-trick before,” Lehtera said. “It feels pretty good. I used to be a passer and now I score three; I don’t know what happened.”
Lehtera is a jokester in the locker room. Whether it be his funny jabs about having to take interviews for the bashful Tarasenko or just his blunt honesty, there is never a dull moment. Yet, his play on the ice is what has really been special in his first 15 NHL games.
“He’s a hard working guy,” said Jaden Schwartz, who plays on the left side of Lehtera. “He creates a lot with his work ethic and his stick and his feet. He’s a big reason why our line in scoring right now and big reason why ‘Vladdy’ is having success right now. He’s older. He’s played against men for a while. He’s probably got that confidence.”
For all intents and purposes, Lehtera is a rookie. While he’s not eligible to win the Calder Cup, the award handed out annually for rookie of the year, due to his age, Lehtera has had to make the same adjustments any first-year player is forced to make. If he were in the running for the award, he would currently be second among rookie scorers with six goals, 16 points.
“He certainly doesn’t look like a rookie that’s for sure,” Schwartz said.
Paul Stastny, who was the Blues’ big free agent signing in the offseason, knows a thing or two about playing center. He says Lehtera does the small things, which often lead to success on the score sheet.
“He’s creating a lot of turnovers, which is big, especially when you are playing with those guys,” Stastny said. “He’s got a really strong stick. He does a lot of things, whether he’s out there trying to open up the lanes for both those guys or whether he’s shooting it or whether he’s passing it; he does a little bit of everything.
“He’s been a complete player and he keeps building that confidence. It’s a good thing for us.”
As any major transition goes, it’s been a tough one for Lehtera despite how easy it has looked. For a player who has spent almost all of his time overseas, Lehtera now looks surprisingly comfortable both on and off the ice. If his consistency continues, it could lead to a breakout year for his two young linemates. It could also make the Blues look like geniuses for picking out his offensive upside in a time when people around the league thought there was none.
The hard work is paying off.
“Not really,” Lehtera said when asked after a game if the transition has been easy. “I was sweating like I am now.”