Mark Letestu: Oilers’ Unsung Hero

From an Edmonton Oilers‘ point of view, the first four months of the 20116-17 season could not have gone much better. Thanks in large part to the play of Leon Draisaitl, Connor McDavid, Andrej Sekera and Cam Talbot, this group sits third in the Pacific Division and tenth in the overall league standings. While the aforementioned quartet has rightly received the bulk of the credit for the club’s turnaround, veteran Mark Letestu has been the team’s unsung hero.

After suffering through a difficult campaign during his first-year in Orange and Blue, the 31-year old has been a go-to-guy for head coach Todd McLellan in his second go-round. Despite his struggles a season ago, Letestu proved once again to be a solid special teams player. His inability to mesh and/or create any kind of offence at even strength with the now departed Nail Yakupov should have surprised no one, nor should have his effectiveness on the penalty kill and man advantage.

(Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Letestu Back in Proper Role

Being asked to carry the weight of a third line centre in 2015-16 was an unrealistic request, and his results proved it. 25 points in 82 games, only ten coming at 5-v-5, and an extremely ugly -21 plus/minus rating left many wondering if Peter Chiarelli had made an error inking the Elk Point native to a free agent deal. Fast forward to the here and now and suddenly his three-year, $5.4 million pact looks to be worth every penny.

With 22 points in 46 games, Letestu is three shy of matching his total from a year ago and managed to hold his own for much of the season at even strength, despite playing with a variety of different wingers. In the grand scheme of things, a player’s plus/minus rating is not a true measure of their overall worth. However, when a guy can shave 20 goals off of his total, in roughly half a season’s worth of games, it says something and is next to impossible to ignore.

Most of his point production continues to come via special teams, seven on the man advantage and three more on the penalty kill, but his line is no longer giving up far more than they create. Be it with Zac Kassian, Tyler Pitlick and to a lesser degree, Matt Hendricks, Jujhar Khaira or Anton Lander, the fourth line has held their own in nearly every game this season. Again, a far cry from what we saw a season ago.

What would surprise most fans is Letestu leads all Oilers’ forwards in combined special teams time on ice with 204 minutes and not far behind Sekera’s team-high total of 216. He trails only Kris Russell in TOI average on the penalty kill (2:27 to 2.21) and sits fifth among forwards on the power play with 2:04 a night. Think about this for a moment — only Draisaitl, Jordan Eberle, Milan Lucic and McDavid get more ice on the man-advantage than No. 55.  Hard to believe but the numbers speak for themselves.

Special Teams Production

His primary purpose on the power play is to be a shooter and as of this moment, he is tied with Lucic for second on the team with five goals at 5-v-4 and has chipped in with a pair of short-handed markers for good measure. Letestu has made the most of his opportunity and McLellan continues to reward him for his efforts. Funny thing is, the four-time 25-point man is doing it playing fewer minutes than a season ago. Confused? Well, you shouldn’t be.

To their credit, the Oilers coaching staff recognized their blunder from the previous year and have limited the ask from Letestu this time around. He proved last season his success on the man advantage with the Columbus Blue Jackets was no fluke, which meant reducing his time at even strength was a must. It may not seem like much but going from 11:18 to 9:38 makes a huge difference and it also gives McLellan a few extra shifts to throw the way of the league’s leading scorer on a nightly basis.

In other words, it was a win-win situation and Edmonton’s 26-15-8 record tells us it has certainly worked out in their favour. As has including the hard-working pivot as a regular in the Oilers shootout rotation. You heard me right, on a team with offensively gifted players like Draisaitl, Eberle, McDavid and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, it is Letestu who leads the team with seven attempts and four goals on the season.

Those numbers not only put him among the league leaders in both categories for 2016-17 but three of those goals played crucial roles in helping his team earn all three of their wins via the shootout. Add to that his proficiency in the face-off dot, the only regular centre on the roster over the 50% mark on the season, and one could make the argument Mark Letestu is the best fourth line centre in all of hockey.