Columbus' Mark Letestu fondly recalls years with Penguins



The Penguins are Mark Letestu's first hockey love.

The Penguins gave the undrafted center his break, developed him into a pro player. But then the playing time dried up, and he was traded to Columbus in November 2011 for a fourth-round pick.

Now he's facing his original team in the first round of the playoffs.

"I'll always have good memories of Pittsburgh," Letestu said. "The organization gave me an opportunity, stuck with me for five years. Sure, at the time it was frustrating being in and out of the lineup, but I still believe they put me in a position to be successful somewhere else. My relationships there have always been good, with the coaches, management, some of the players still. It will always be my first home for the NHL.

"That being said, I've moved on. This is the organization I'm proud to be playing for. Happy to see this go wherever it will go."

So far, it's gone to a 2-2 tie in the first-round series between the Blue Jackets and Penguins, with Game 5 set for Saturday night at Consol Energy Center.

Letestu, 29, played 11 postseason games for the Penguins, but he got his first Stanley Cup playoff goal against them in Game 1.

"The timing of the goal, it being a power-play goal and being the first in my career makes it more special than who it was against," said Letestu, who added an assist in Game 4.

A fourth-line center and penalty-killer, Letestu rarely has missed games since joining the Blue Jackets -- he played in all 82 games in the 2013-14 regular season.

He has seen what he believes is great growth in Columbus as a hockey market as the team has grown more competitive.

"This is great. This is awesome, especially coming over here and coming where we've come, from the bottom and now seeing the town, the buzz, the excitement around the organization," Letestu said. "It's fun. It really, really is truly an honor to be a part of."

One tie remains for Letestu from his early days in the Penguins organization. Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards was one of three head coaches he had while playing with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League in the mid- to late 2000s. The other two were Penguins coach Dan Bylsma and Penguins assistant Todd Reirden.

"All three guys have had an impact on my career in positive ways," Letestu said.

"I enjoyed playing for all three of them."

Letestu got some role reversal in the NHL lockout in 2012-13.

The native of Elk Point, Alberta, contacted the coach of his former junior team, Chad Mercier, in nearby Bonnyville about skating with the team to stay in shape.

"I came out and skated a little bit," Letestu said. "[Mercier] asked me some questions about what I thought about the team. I gave him some input, and he asked me if I wanted to stick around and coach."

So Letestu became a temporary assistant.

"It definitely gives you perspective more than anything. It drives you nuts when the players don't do what the coach says. You get the idea that what they say is what they feel is best for the team. I had a lot of fun with it."

And he learned of the frustrations Richards, Bylsma, Reirden and all the other coaches he has played for sometimes have.

Asked if the Bonnyville players listened him, Letestu said, "Some of the times.

"It's funny. You probably sleep less as a coach than you do as a player because you honestly feel like you have no control of the situation. As a player, you can come out and work harder. As a coach, you can work harder, but it doesn't always mean anything changes."

Shelly Anderson: shanderson@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1721 and Twitter @pgshelly.


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