St. Louis Blues prospect Jori Lehtera has decided to remain in Russia according to Russian team Novosibirsk Sibir’s website. Lehtera has signed a two-year contract with the Kontinental Hockey League team, meaning Lehtera will not be making his way to St. Louis this season.
The Blues really wanted Lehtera in the National Hockey League. Blues general manager Doug Armstrong made that clear at the end of the season, saying the Blues would love to have Lehtera on their NHL club, but ultimately it was up to him. Obviously, Lehtera has little desire to play in the NHL after he reportedly turned down a one-way offer from the Blues and chose to remain in the KHL. The Blues will have lost their exclusive rights to Lehtera when his KHL contract expires, making it unlikely that he ever joins the Blues.
Lehtera, 25, was drafted by the Blues in the third round of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. He played seven games with the Blues’ American Hockey League affiliate Peoria Rivermen in the 2008-09 season. Unfortunately for the Blues, that has been his only appearance in North America.
Since being drafted, Lehtera has found success in Finland, and most recently in Russia’s KHL league. He was fifth in the KHL in total points (46) this past season, and ninth in assists (29) in 52 regular season games. This past season was Lehtera’s third in the KHL; it was also his most successful.
Earlier this week, I interviewed Russian reporter Pavel Lysenkov, asking him his thoughts on Lehtera. Lysenkov thought that Lehtera would indeed be making his way to the NHL, so was as surprised as everyone else when the news was announced today. He considered Lehtera a good player, but wasn’t sure of how he would play in the NHL, and certainly didn’t think he would be a star. He highlighted Lehtera’s weakness as often being poor defensively, something that would have had to change under Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock.
According to Andy Strickland of Truehockey.com, the Blues offered Lehtera a substantial sum of money, potentially as large as seven figures. If this is indeed the case, it shows how badly the Blues wanted Lehtera to join their club.
What makes Lehtera so valuable to the Blues is his position. The Blues are lacking a playmaking center, and Lehtera would have helped in that area. However, there is a possibility that he would have had a hard time adjusting to the NHL.
With more guaranteed playing time and dollars, the decision probably wasn’t too hard for Lehtera, but it is good that the Blues now know they must move forward without him. How this decision impacts the Blues’ thought process moving forward remains to be seen. The only center that the Blues have interest in re-signing is Patrik Berglund, who is a restricted free agent.
The offseason should begin to get busy in a few weeks as the NHL Entry Draft is scheduled for June 30. Free agency opens on July 5.