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Photo Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Oilers: Individual Improvement

The Edmonton Oilers finally have some positive continuity. For years the only consistent the organization had was losing. They changed coaches frequently, and every year they had eight to ten new players, but those days are in the past. Todd McLellan and the coaching staff will begin their third campaign next month, and at this moment the Oilers will likely only have three new faces on the roster: Ryan Strome, Jussi Jokinen and Yohann Auvitu.

They will arrive at training camp comfortable and confident in their system, terminology and aware of the tendencies of most of their teammates. That is a major advantage and something this organization hasn’t experienced in over a decade. They have no major question marks heading into training camp. There will be some battles for spots in the lineup, but the majority of the 23-man roster is already set.

This team is far from perfect, but the areas they need to improve will mostly come from individuals improving different areas of their game, instead of revamping their system or overhauling the roster. Leading up to training camp, I’m writing a series on different players and what they are hoping to improve. Some of the quotes are from May when the team packed up after losing in the second round of the playoffs, while others are more recent.

Today, we’ll start with a player coming off a career-year, but according to him there is one obvious aspect of his game he needs to improve.

Mark Letestu had a career best 16 goals and 35 points last season. He tied Connor McDavid for the team lead with six game-winning goals. He was second on the team with eleven power play goals. He led the team with two shorthanded goals.

In the playoffs, he was second in scoring with eleven points. He led them with eight PP points and four PP goals.

He was one of their best special teams players all year. He had a good season, but and wants to ensure he maintains his role.

“Further solidify the foothold on my role,” began Letestu. “Being good on both special teams. It doesn’t matter to me which unit I’m on, I think I can contribute in both,” he said.

But, he was very quick to point out where he needs to improve.

“For me, my five-on-five play has got to get better. I haven’t been able to contribute as well there as I have on both special teams areas. I think with Kass (Zack Kassian) or whoever I get paired up with, there’s going to be a lot of talent throughout the lineup. There’s going to be the ability to do it. I think it’s just a matter of myself and my linemates capitalizing on the opportunity,” Letestu said.

What about his five-on-five play is lacking?

“My offence,” he said bluntly.

“I think at times as a fourth line centre, you can get comfortable letting the other guys play offence, and you just have to win faceoffs and get off the ice. I think my mindset has to change a little bit. We have to be productive from the bottom six. I think the best teams are now 12 or 13 or 14 forwards deep. As a fourth line, we have to contribute regularly. I think I can be a big part of that, if I stop being complacent and settling as the guy who just takes faceoffs and is solid defensively. We have to go out there and score some goals,” said Letestu.

Nov 5, 2016; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Edmonton Oilers center Mark Letestu (55) shoots the winning goal on New York Islanders goalie Jaroslav Halak (41) at Barclays Center. Edmonton Oilers won in shootout 4-3. Mandatory Credit: Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve always appreciated speaking with Letestu because he’s very aware of his abilities as a player. Last season when some questioned why he was in the shootout he responded confidently, “Because I’m good at them.”

He knows what he is good at and he is aware of his shortcomings. The challenge for any player is to not get complacent. Letestu admitted a player can get comfortable in a role — his was defence and faceoffs, and he didn’t focus on producing offensively. He thinks the game very well. He has incredible offensive instincts, which is why he is so successful on the power play. He won’t beat guys with his speed. He has to think the game and find openings, but with Kassian and possibly Jokinen to start the season, that line should be able to produce more at even strength than they did last season.

I jokingly asked if he’ll practice line rushes with Kassian so he stays onside. Kassian had four goals called back last year due to video review.

“Yeah (laughing), he had a tough year that way. There’s no way it can go that way for him again. He’s going to blow up one day. He’s going to go squirrely on a linesmen (laughs). We need him to stay onside, not hit goalies, all the things that everybody likes to call against him. In all seriousness though, look where he was drafted (13th overall in 2009). There’s some talent and skill there. Some of the goals he scored in the playoffs were high skilled plays. I believe he’s a 10-15 goal guy, and that’s playing in the bottom six,” replied Letestu.

Letestu only had three EV goals, but he was eighth among forwards with 18 EV points. He is capable of scoring more EV goals.

In 2010/2011 with Pittsburgh he had 10 EV goals and 21 EV points.
In 51 games with Columbus in 2011/2012 he scored seven EV goals and 16 points.
The lockout shortened season he tallied eight EV goals and 20 points in 46 games.
In 2013/2014 he had six EV goals and 20 points and in 2015 he scored six EV goals and 11 points in 54 games with Columbus.

He has been very productive on the PP in Edmonton, but needs to rediscover his scoring touch at 5×5.

If Letestu can chip in with six to eight EV goals and 20+ points, and continue his PP success, he’ll become even more valuable for the Oilers.

QUICK HITS…

  • I spoke with Letestu before he teed off in the Pro-Am for the Oil Country Championship. It starts today at the Windemere and if you are a golf fan, go watch. I went last year at the Glendale and it’s amazing how good the players on the Mackenzie Tour are. They hit the ball just as far as players on the PGA tour, but it’s about finding consistency. Golf is such a mental game, and I’ve gained more of an appreciation for it over the years. Walking the course and watching a group of two play the entire day is the best way to go. All the details on tee off times for the weekend are here. You will have a good chance of running into a few current or former Oilers at some point over the weekend.
  • I don’t understand why people want Letestu off the first unit powerplay. He was very good there and in the playoffs he was in on eight of their nine PP goals. Having a familiar unit to start the season is a major advantage. If during the season you want to try some different players because the top unit struggling, I could understand it, but wanting to “give a young guy” a chance makes little sense to me. The goal is to win and Letestu helps the PP a lot. There is no guarantee a younger player has the instincts of Letestu to read the play and find the open hole. I’d only consider moving him off the first unit if he isn’t producing, but until then I’d start the season with the same five. They are good.
  • I also asked Letestu his thoughts regarding the Oilers and what they need to do to take the next step and become a  legitimate Stanley Cup contender. “Well I think realizing the situation you’re in. We may have caught a couple teams off guard last year. They might have thought ‘Typical Oilers coming to town… it’ll be a shootout and eventually they’ll fall apart.’ That’s not going to happen this year. Nobody is going to take us lightly. We’ve got the guy who won the scoring title and Hart Trophy. When you have that guy on your team, combined with the year we had, teams are going to get up for us, and they get excited about those matchups. The opposing top defence pair and top lines… he (McDavid) is a measuring stick for everybody. You’re going to get their best games. Past history is also something. I’ve seen teams like the Islanders take a step forward and then the next couple years they took a step back. This year is going to be more difficult, and I have no doubt the message at training camp is going to be something about that from Todd immediately.”
  • Tickets are still available for the first ever Oilersnation Open golf tournament! The tournament is filling up quickly and you’re going to want to be a part of it! Not to mention, a portion of all sales will be donated directly to the Gregor Foundation.

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  • OriginalPouzar

    Letestu did so well on the 1PP last year that it really does seem “silly” to think that he might not be there this coming season but that is the reality – there are a few other players that are likely vying for the right shot cross-crease role – Slep, JP, Strome, etc.

    Letestu did a great job but he realizes that he needs to keep it up in order to keep that spot.

    At the end of the day, it would be nice to have another player in that role in an effort to keep Mark’s minutes down a bit – he has started to struggle in the past when asked to play too many minutes.

    • HardBoiledOil 1.0

      we really need to have Slepy, Strome, Drake and JP step up this year! i know some Oiler fans are nervous about us going with
      RW by committee but we have a youthful team when you add our top 2 scorers McD and Leon as well as Nurse, Benning, Klefbom, Drake and LB so we may as well get them all some experience while we have figured out how to win and perhaps in the near future we can add the Edmonton Oilers to the list of powerhouses in the NHL along with Chicago and Pittsburgh.

    • Where's the Lamb Sauce

      Anyone who trashed this comment must not want Nuge to bounceback? And wants the Drake to struggle again and have to play 3C? Maybe they were just Flames fans…

  • A-Mc

    Letestu seems like a guy that would go into coaching after his NHL career comes to a close. He’s smart, he articulates well, he identifies skills/strengths and because he’s sort of an inbetweener as a skilled bottom 6 guy, he has an understanding of what goes into the various roles (for forwards atleast).

    I could definitely see him get into coaching one day and i’m sure Gregor will have him on the show the day he does.