The Departed - Mark Letestu - 12-07-11

Written by Seth Rorabaugh on .

"The Departed" series on Empty Netters is a set of "eulogies" for former Penguins who have passed away... to other teams. Essentially, we look back on their time as a Penguin, examine their contributions to the franchise and as real eulogies occasionally do, exaggerate a bit. Today's eulogy is dedicated to Mark Letestu.

One of the big reasons the Penguins declined badly under general manager Craig Patrick was the organization's minor league system. It simply couldn't develop much in the way of homegrown talent. That partly led to the firing of Patrick in 2006.

Fast forward four years and the Penguins' opening night roster in 2010-11 compiled by new general manager Ray Shero had three players who weren't even drafted by the franchise. But they had served their time in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, learned the system and found their way to the NHL

Deryk Engelland.

Ben Lovejoy.

And Mark Letestu.

Letestu quietly joined the organization in March of 2007 as a free agent coming out of Western Michigan University. After playing in a handful of regular season and postseason games for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins at the end of 2006-07, Letestu's first full professional season was 2007-08. Statistically speaking, the results were hardly impressive

In 52 games under head coach Todd Richards and an assistant coach name Dan Bylsma, Letestu could only collect 18 points. In 12 postseason games, he could only record three assists.

One season later in 2008-09, Richards was off to San Jose as an assistant coach at the NHL level and Bylsma became the AHL Penguins' head coach. As a result, Letestu's game took off. Working on a line partially with Nick Johnson and cult favorite Janne Pesonen, Letestu's production took off as he collected 61 points in 73 games, third-most on the team. He also contributed 10 points in 12 games that postseason.

By the time 2009-10 rolled around, Bylsma had moved on to the NHL Penguins and won the Stanley Cup. He was replaced by another assistant, Todd Reirden. Letestu's production didn't let up. In 63 games, he was able to produce 55 points. He also earned a cup of coffee in the NHL. After two unremarkable games in November, Letestu was thrust into the lineup as a last-minute call-up to replace the injured Sidney Crosby against the Blackhawks, Dec. 5, 2009. With the team trailing 1-0, late in regulation, Letestu was given the chore of taking a faceoff in the offensive zone. He successfully won the draw against veteran faceoff specialist John Madden. As a result, Jordan Staal was able to tie the game and force overtime:

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Letestu made several long drives from Pittsburgh to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton that season. He appeared in 10 regular season games and scored one goal while winning 55.4 percent of his faceoffs. And due to injuries to Mike Rupp and Bill Guerin, he saw action in four postseason games and contributed one assists. His impressive showing gave him a chance to compete for an NHL job in the 2010 training camp.

While ballyhooed prospect Eric Tangradi was the fan favorite to get an NHL roster spot prior to the 2010-11 season, Letestu was the player who was better prepared to play the style of hockey Dan Bylsma wanted, particularly with fellow center Jordan Staal starting the season on injured reserve due to a foot ailment.

Through the first seven games of the season, Letestu validated Bylsma's faith by scoring seven points. And while his production died down as the season wore on, he formed a surprising effective third line with Chris Conner and Tyler Kennedy called the "Buzz Line:"

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All in all, Letestu became a self-described "utility guy." He could score goals in shootouts:

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He could scored goals with dogged, determined defensive efforts:

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Or fight someone no one on your team likes:

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Even with Staal returning at the start of the 2011 calendar year, injuries to Crosby and Evgeni Malkin provided more opportunities for Letestu. But the injury bug which attacked the Penguins' centers in 2010-11, eventually bit Letestu. During a morning skate Feb. 1, Letestu caught his skate in a rut at Madison Square Garden and injured his knee.

The injury would keep Letestu sidelined 12 games. When he returned to the lineup Feb. 26, the team was dramatically different through the trades which brought in Alex Kovalev, James Neal and Matt Niskanen. Eventually, Letestu was forced into being the team's default No. 1 center between Kovalev and Neal. Despite that elevated role, Letestu who never fully recovered from his knee injury and had to deal with an additional shoulder ailment, could only produce seven points in 14 games to finish the season.

Things didn't get any better in the postseason where Letestu was only able to record one assist in a seven-game loss to the Lightning.

Injuries created more opportunities for Letestu at the start of this season. Crosby wasn't fully recovered from his concussion and Malkin had lingering issues related to his knee. But the return of Richard Park and emergence of Joe Vitale provided additional competition for Letestu to stay in the lineup. The numbers just didn't add up for Letestu.

He was a frequent healthy scratch during the first month of October, and despite playing a variety of roles, Letestu could only produce one assist.

With Crosby's return looming and the improved health of Malkin, the writing was on the wall for Letestu. On Nov. 8, the team traded him to the Blue Jackets in exchange for a draft pick.

In 85 regular season games for the Penguins, Letestu scored 29 points.

Letestu's time in Pittsburgh was brief. He wasn't even here the equivalent of two full seasons. But it illustrated what the Penguins can do with a productive farm system. The Penguins were able to take a player with little pedigree out of college and develop him into an NHL caliber player. For Letestu, he took the road less traveled to the NHL and refused to go back.

(Photo: First-Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images; Second-Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins; Third-Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

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