Blues bolster center depth with Lehtera signing

News-DemocratJuly 1, 2014 

Better late than never, the St. Louis Blues finally got former draft pick Jori Lehtera to North America on a full-time basis.

The Blues signed the promising center from Finland to a two-year deal worth $5.5 million on Tuesday, giving Lehtera a shot at proving himself in the NHL.

In his last three seasons playing for Novosibirsk Sibir in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League, the 26-year-old Lehtera had 39 goals and 118 points in 125 games.

"I had a good chat with him at the Olympics in the dining hall, told him we were disappointed we couldn't come to an agreement (before)," Blues General Manager Doug Armstrong said. "He said at the end of the day he felt he made a mistake, which was the first step.

"If he had gone back, he would have been an unrestricted free agent at 27, so this was our last and only opportunity to deal with him with no outside competition."

The only competition now was the KHL and Armstrong said Lehtera was able to get out of his contract there.

"Having an opportunity to watch him play at the Olympics and watching all his games at the World Championships, talking to some people I know from the Finnish Federation, there's very little question he's ready to step in and be a contributing factor in the NHL," Armstrong said.

Lehtera and Blues winger Vladimir Tarasenko spent some time on the same line while playing together in the KHL, something Armstrong hinted could be a possibility with the Blues.

Lehtera also was on Finland's bronze medal squad at the 2014 Winter Olympics.

The Blues' third-round draft pick in 2008 (65th overall), Lehtera (6-foot-2, 191 pounds) played in seven games for the AHL's Peoria Rivermen in 2008-09 before returning to Europe.

After playing one season each with Tappara Tampere in Finland's pro league and for Yaroslavl Lokomotiv in the KHL Lehtera spent the last three seasons with Sibir.

Armstrong said there's a lot to like about Lehtera.

"He's a big body with very, very soft hands; a very good passer," Armstrong said. "He's a guy that can find players. I watched him at the World Championships give some players some back-door tap-ins on the power play. He's an offensive player."

Armstrong said the Blues pursuit of other players, including their own unrestricted free agents like Steve Ott and Brenden Morrow, is likely over.

"Right now our roster's completed," Armstrong said. "If we do get back into that market we're going to have to make some changes."

The last two restricted free agents needing to be signed by the Blues are Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Sobotka. The Blues are a little over $6 under the NHL's new $69 million salary cap.

Adding veteran center Paul Stastny and Lehtera also gives the Blues some more firepower ad flexibility.

"I sort of feel like the kindergarten teacher. I'm throwing all the toys in the sandbox and let the coaches figure out what they want to play with and how they want to use them," Armstrong said. "The coaches are going to have some options. It might take a little bit of time this year, maybe the first 15-20 games, to find a constant rhythm and then find the right pairings."

Also on Tuesday, the Blues signed forward Phil McRae and defenseman Brent Regner to one-year, two-way contracts.

The 24-year-old McRae was the Blues' second-round pick (33rd overall) in the 2008 draft. The son of former Blues winger Basil McRae, Phil McRae had eight goals and 20 points in 45 games last season with the Espoo Blues in Finland's pro league (Liiga).

McRae also had 42 goals and 83 points in 162 gams with the Peoria Rivermen.

The 25-year-old Regner had three goals and 24 points in 63 games last season for the Blues' AHL farm team, the Chicago Wolves. He also led all Wolves defensemen with two goals and six points in nine playoff contests.

Regner was a fifth-round draft pick by Columbus in 2008.

Former Blues goaltender Ryan Miller, who finished out last season with the club, signed a three-year deal with Vancouver for $18 million. Former Blues winger Adam Cracknell signed a one-year deal with the Kings.

Contact reporter Norm Sanders at 239-2454, nsanders@bnd.com or follow him on Twitter: @NormSanders

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