St. Louis Blues prospect Jori Lehtera has made his decision. The Blues' third-round selection in the 2008 NHL Draft has decided to stay in the KHL by signing a two-year deal with HC Sibir Novosibirsk, as reported by Andy Strickland.
There was some belief that Lehtera might try to make the jump to the NHL for the 2013-14 season, giving the Blues another option up the middle. This belief has been squashed for the near future as Lehtera pledges his allegiance to Europe for at least two more seasons.
Lehtera is a big center. His scouting report over at Hockey's Future accurately describes that he can bring offense to the table but that it comes at a price. He can finish at short range, but he's a poor skater and lacks defensive play. He's currently a one-way center by definition. His physical game leaves a lot to be desired. This isn't to say Lehtera's a bad player, but it leaves you wondering how he'd handle the more physical, more intense NHL competition where defense isn't optional.
Still, his offensive numbers in the KHL and the Finnish Elite League are enticing. He tallied 46 points in 52 games in 2012-13. Prior to that he had 26 points in 25 games in 2011-12, but missed a large chunk of the year due to a knee injury. He even skated with Vladimir Tarasenko before Frank was dealt to SKA St. Petersburg.
Your level of disappointment in this news will depend on what you envisioned from Lehtera. Personally, I struggled with the idea that he'd be able to come in and instantly hold down a regular spot in the St. Louis lineup. I imagined he'd have a hard time winning a spot and would struggle to find consistent playing time. Meanwhile, the KHL could offer more guaranteed minutes and more money. Easy decision for Lehtera.
The Blues reportedly did extend a one-way offer with considerable money to Lehtera but he turned them down.
Will Lehtera ever make the jump to the NHL? It's possible, but the Blues won't own his rights after his new two-year deal is over due to the fact he'll be 27.
I'm not entirely convinced Lehtera would actually have been able to make the switch to the NHL style, and that doubt right there is enough for me to feel that this is not as bad a situation as some might feel it is. The Blues are not looking for another decent center or center prospect, they're looking for that top-of-the-line, no questions or doubts type of guy. While of course Lehtera's tasty KHL line could signify his ability to come in and become that top line center, there's far from any guarantee he wouldn't be more than just another expensive player not living up to his potential.
I'm disappointed because I liked the idea of bringing him over to see what he could contribute, but I'm glad the decision has at least been made. It frees up Armstrong to focus on bringing in someone like Bozak or Weiss.
@lizardkingjl This is some strong analysis. I pretty much agree with everything you've written above. It's disappointing when a player chooses a different club (or league) over the Blues, but would adding Lehtera be the answer in the quest for the Cup? Probably not.