Forward Letestu makes a case for promotion from minors

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Mark Letestu insists that he really likes -- no, that he loves -- Wilkes-Barre, and he says it with such conviction and sincerity that it's impossible to not believe him.

That is, at least until one watches the right-shooting forward perform during the Penguins' training camp. Do that, and it quickly becomes apparent that he has no intention of returning to the northeast corner of the commonwealth -- not during hockey season, anyway.

"I feel like this is one of the best opportunities I'm going to get," Letestu said. "It's a chance for me to seize it."

While it's still a little early to proclaim that Letestu will have a place in the Penguins' lineup for the regular-season opener Oct. 7 against the Philadelphia Flyers, it's hard to imagine that management won't be forced to clear a spot for him unless his game utterly implodes over the next week.

"To say to Mark, 'Hey you haven't done everything you've needed to do [to put yourself in contention for an NHL job],' I couldn't look him in the eye and say that," coach Dan Bylsma said Sunday. "I'd have to look at the floor."

Letestu has dressed for two of the Penguins' first three preseason games and picked up four assists. That not only makes him his team's leading scorer, but had him tied for third in the league in points before Sunday night's games.

While it's risky to read much -- or anything, for that matter -- into exhibition-game statistics, Letestu's points reflect just one facet of his game. Indeed, Letestu might be plugged into more defensive roles in future preseason games than he has been to this point.

"He probably won't be in a first- or second-line role going forward," Bylsma said. "As we get closer and closer to the end [of the preseason], exhibition games will be more like an NHL game.

"Right now, he's been put in positions to have success -- or at least to show what he can do with [skilled] players -- or at least to show what he can do, and he's done that."

It's conceivable that Letestu, 25, could be in the NHL next month even if the Penguins wouldn't have a place for him.

Unlike fellow forward prospects Eric Tangradi, Dustin Jeffrey and Nick Johnson, Letestu would have to clear waivers to return to the Penguins' American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre, and it's hard to imagine that picking him up wouldn't provide a personnel upgrade for more than a few clubs.

After all, while he isn't particularly large (5 feet 11, 195 pounds), Letestu is responsible defensively, productive in the attacking zone and a capable faceoff man.

Even so, he is taking nothing for granted. He knows that the battle for jobs is fierce and that, while the Penguins have 13 forwards on one-way contracts, he's not one of them.

"It's always uphill," Letestu said. "You pretty much have to force management's hand, and I'm trying to do my best to do that."




NOTES -- The Penguins pared their roster to 41 by sending goalie Mattias Modig to Wilkes-Barre. They have 23 forwards, 14 defensemen and 4 goalies in camp. ... Forward Ryan Craig, who left a 3-1 preseason victory Saturday night against Columbus because of a sore groin, did not practice Sunday.


For more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Dave Molinari: dmolinari@post-gazette.com .


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