Mark Letestu hasn’t volunteered to step into the Zamboni driver’s seat to wheel it around the Rogers Place ice this season, but that’s about the only task he hasn’t taken on for the Edmonton Oilers as their utility forward who can play in almost any position.
Fourth-line centre, third-line centre. Important face-offs as the Oilers only right-shooting pivot for draws. Penalty-kill, first power-play unit, the only right-hand shot on the power play, the best one-timer. Eleven goals on the power play. Two shorthanded. A career best 35 points. A career high 16 goals. Fifty-seven percent on draws on the PP which makes him hugely important.
Same goes for his rookie winger Drake Caggiula and the forechecking demon Zack Kassian on the new third line for the Oilers — two smaller players in Caggiula and Letestu and a big banger in Kassian.
The line could be a key factor against the San Jose Sharks as was the Pittsburgh Penguins’ third line was in their their playoff run to the Stanley Cup title last spring with Nick Bonino, Phil Kessel and Patrik Hornqvist, although there’s obviously more offence on that unit.
“There are a few more minutes for me now with the rotation and all the special teams,” said Letestu, making his second playoff appearance after fourth-line duty with the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2014.
Letestu was a fourth-liner for the Oilers most of the year, often lining up with Kassian but also Matt Hendricks, and with a variety of others, with additional work on special teams, where he was Edmonton’s most versatile player. He’d see six to seven minutes a game 5-on-5, then get it up to about 14 minutes on average with the power-play and penalty-killing work, plus some extra draws in the defensive zone, if needed.
“This might be a jump from five to six minutes total depending, but the coach (Todd McLellan) is pretty cognizant,” he said. “He and I have a pretty good relationship. I’m pretty honest with him when I need a blow (sit down) or a shift. I’m sure we’ll work guys in, especially with the special teams.
“But I’m excited.”
Letestu will be seeing different players line up across from him. As a fourth-liner, he’s often matched against a mixed bag of checkers depending on the situation. He’ll likely see Patrick Marleau in the middle for the opener and maybe he’ll see more work than normal against the other team’s third defence pairing — in the Sharks’ case, that will be Brendan Dillon and local product David Schlemko.
A third line in the playoffs can’t just check. “Those days of having two offensive lines, a checking line and an energy line are gone. Pittsburgh had 12 guys who could go every game,” said Letestu.
Caggiula has jockeyed between forward line assignments throughout the season, often as the No. 3 centre or as a fourth-line winger. He’s had ample work on both special teams, too, like Letestu. Different stuff for a rookie.
“When I was playing on the fourth line, I wasn’t getting much even-strength minutes, but you find a way to get on the power play and penalty kill,” said Caggiula, who averaged 13:14 of ice time during the regular season. “I think I’ve got the versatility to move up and down the lineup.”
“Test thinks the game really well and creates lots of plays, and with Kassian’s speed and energy level, it’s a good combination. We just played one late season game in Vancouver but had a little bit of work earlier in the season,” said Caggiula, who sees no reason why he can’t be a similar player to rookie Penguins winger Jake Guentzel, who plays on a line with Sidney Crosby.
He’s small like Caggiula, but a good scorer.
“I played three years against him (in U.S. college). I think we’re pretty similar with our speed and playmaking abilities … I’m not surprised how well he’s done so well with Crosby,” said Caggiula. “Guentzel and Conor Sheary do a lot of the dirty work for Sid.
“The league is finally starting to click for me. I realize I have more time and I have more confidence in making plays even if they are a little risky.”
On Twitter: @NHLbyMatty