Penguins' Letestu struggles with consistency
Mark Letestu has one of those friendly, open faces with bright eyes and a quick smile.
Those features dull ever so slightly if you ask him to critique his rookie season with the Penguins.
"A lot of ups and downs," the center said.
"It's been a year of adjustments. You're always learning. And right now, I'm not as comfortable as I have been, but I'm still happy to be here."
During the Penguins' recent three-game losing streak, Letestu had no points and was a minus in his plus-minus rating each game.
Things perked up some Wednesday in a 5-2 win at Montreal, when he had an assist and his first NHL fight, against fellow rookie P.K. Subban, a Canadiens defenseman. Sort of.
It was more of a short wrestling bout near the Penguins net, with Letestu pinning Subban.
"He's not a guy who gets in confrontations, but I think that said a lot for how he was playing the game -- he gets in a tussle with Subban," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "I liked his puck battles. I thought he was a little more authoritative about his game.
"He's a gifted player. He's got skill. But he's got to play with an edge to have those puck battles and make those plays that he can make. He certainly did [Wednesday] night."
You want skill? Look no further than the slick hands he flashed in scoring a backhand goal Jan. 5 in an 8-1 win against Tampa Bay.
You want consistency? Well, that's still a work in progress.
Letestu's best stretch came when he played on a third line between Chris Conner and Tyler Kennedy. That included the Penguins' 12-game winning streak.
"Things were good then," Letestu said.
Letestu, 5 feet 11 and 195 pounds, is tied for fourth on the team with nine goals and tied for sixth with 19 points. He's second to Sidney Crosby among the centers with a 53.7 faceoff winning percent.
Letestu's hands have helped him overcome not being drafted by an NHL team.
"I wish my feet were the same," he said. "That seems to be what's holding me back. I'm just not as quick as some of these guys here. Sometimes it doesn't allow me to get to my game on a consistent basis.
"It's something I try to work at every summer, whether it's lengthening my stride or just trying to get a little more explosive. It's not an easy skill to acquire."
The steady line he was on got broken up because the Penguins began to struggle, center Jordan Staal returned after missing the first 39 games, and Crosby went out with a concussion.
For a few games, Letestu was on the top power-play unit, but Staal has taken that spot. During five-on-five play, Letestu has had a mix of linemates playing on the third or fourth line.
"Obviously, we've had some adversity and Dan's been forced to shuffle the lines around to get a spark," Letestu said. "Will I come back to [a more settled] role? I'm sure at some point, when the roster comes back around. Until then, whatever they need me to do, I'll do it."
And do it well, said Kennedy, who at 24 is younger than Letestu -- who will turn 26 in a few weeks -- but is in his fourth NHL season.
"You can tell he's a focused player," Kennedy said. "You can see the drive in him.
"He's settling in well. He knows he should be here, but he knows he still has to work to stay here. Even guys like me and other guys who have been here longer, we have to prove that we should stay here."
Letestu didn't celebrate his first goal this season. That came during 10 games with the Penguins last season. But he talks about milestones, starting with making the team out of a highly competitive training camp and in an organization deep enough that its Wilkes-Barre/Scranton affiliate is the top team in the American Hockey League.
"I had a pretty good camp and being here on Day One was something I was pretty proud of," Letestu said.
"You get to a week in and you're pretty happy about that, and then a month and now [just past] the halfway point of the season."
Another milestones came in November. After living in a hotel during training camp and for more than a month of the regular season, Letestu finally got the word -- he should find a place to live.
"That was an awesome day," Letestu said. "We were at Southpointe. Ray [Shero, the general manager] poked his head in the weight room and told me to go see Dan. Right away, I went, 'Oh, no.' He said, 'No, it's a good thing.' It was nice to know that they had plans for me."
It also was a relief for Letestu's wife, Brett.
"She was in the hotel with me the whole time," Letestu said. "So it was a good day for her, too."
First Published January 14, 2011 12:00 am