COLUMBUS - Standing comfortably in a light colored t-shirt and jeans today, Mark Letestu appeared relaxed and relieved.
Things have been going in the right direction, he quipped to the media scrum at Nationwide Arena Tuesday, where the Columbus Blue Jackets held an optional skate in the Ice Haus.
As the trade deadline hangs uncomfortably over the heads of players in every club, Letestu was happy to take a moment and celebrate a 2-year, 2.5 million contract extension with Columbus just two days after scoring the game winning overtime goal against the Anaheim Ducks. And now, the 28-year-old is poised to help this underdog club push for the playoffs over their final 12 games, 8 of which are on the road.
Its been quite a week for the versatile forward, to say the least.
Theres always going to be ups and downs. Right now Im on an up, said Letestu, who has tallied 9 goals and 11 assists in this abbreviated NHL season. For them to come to me and work something outit speaks a lot to their confidence in me.
Not that its hard for management to have confidence. In addition to having the second highest points tally, second only to Vinny Prospal, Letestu has a 6 rating and has won 52 percent of his face-offs. Since being acquired from Pittsburgh in 2011 for a fourth-round draft pick, hes contributed 20 goals and 24 assists.
The contract extension has motivated Letestu to play harder.
This certainly doesnt mean I can rest now, said Letestu, who acknowledged that even with a contract extension, he could still be on the trading block. This just means its another dollar figure that I have to live up to and work to. Theres another contract after this that Im playing for. Its just another step, another progression for me, and I hope theres another one at the end of this one.
There havent always been weeks like this for the 511 winger.
I didnt get drafted; Im still pretty new to the leagueI havent even hit 200 games yet, said Letestu, who said his career has surprised manyproven them wrong, even. And its something he doesnt take for granted. I think for me to pull in, on some nights, 20 minutes, its more than any forward in this league can expect. So to have earned that role, on some nights, I think is more than I could have expected.
But there have been many along the way who did expect this from Letestu. And proving them right has become far more important than proving any doubters wrong.
Ive had coaches along the way that obviously believed in me and put me in situations to succeed, said Letestu. (Head Coach Todd Richards) has played me a ton and I got a contract extension out of that. So (Richards and other coaches) are just as responsible for putting me in situations to succeed as I am for taking advantage of those situations. You dont get many opportunities and you have to make the most of them if you want to stick around.
In fact, seizing opportunity is something Letestu has become adept at. The trait, he said, was born out of necessity early in his career.
I wasnt always in the line-up so, to have the knowledge to play all positions, to be ready to play all positions, gave me a better chance to stay in the line-up night to night, said Letestu, who can play all forward positions, the penalty kill and the power play. Thats kind of where that came fromjust being prepared to play whatever. Around here, they call me the utility guy.
His grit and determination mirrors his teams. The unlikely Blue Jackets are in a playoff push no one saw coming.
Its the mentality weve adopted, the identity. Were starting to reap the benefits of sticking with the plan, said Letestu of the gritty mentality the club has adopted. Its everybody buying in. At the start of the season, Mr. Davidson comes down and talks about the direction we want to go, north, and brick-by-brick, and the coaches adopt the same kind of passion and structure it to where we want to go, and then the players buy in and you see results. It just breeds itself.
The mentality is contagious and no one puts it out there more than Vinny Prospal, said Letestu, adding that the gritty, 38-year-old is one player in the room who always motivates him.
I spend a lot of time with Vinny. Hes a line mate of mine, hes an older guy, hes been in the league and he still plays the game with a boyish passion. He plays like a young guy out there, said Letestu. He celebrates every goal like it might be his lastthats the way everybody should be.
Asked if Prospal has ever given him any good advice, Letestu laughed, Hes full of advice. Hes full of advice after every shift, thats his thing. Hes always telling you to do something different.
But really, said Letestu, Its just the way he plays, that motivates him night to night.
The club will need all the motivation it can get as it heads into Nashville Thursday night and St. Louis Friday night, the first two of 8 remaining road games before the end of the season.
I think were going to have to lean on the whole line-up (to keep up mentally and physically). I think thats probably one of our strengths. Were not reliant on one line or one guy. We dont score a lot but when we do it seems to be spread out throughout the line-up, said Letestu. If were relying on different guys, different nights, its tough for teams to have match-ups.
And so far, that approach has been working. The key, though, said Letestu, is walking away with no regrets when its all said and done.
You just go out and play hard and hopefully you leave it out there.
You can watch the Blue Jackets take on the Nashville Predators Thursday night at 8 p.m. on Fox Sports Ohio.