When the St. Louis Blues selected Jori Lehtera with their third-round pick at the 2008 NHL Draft, an element of the unknown followed the Finnish-born center, one that had nothing to do with his on-ice skills.
The looming question was whether the Blues could get Lehtera to North America.
Lehtera, 26, made impressive strides at the international level as well as playing for Yaroslavl Lokomotiv and Sibir Novosibirsk of the Kontinental Hockey League. Ultimately, he turned out to be the wild-card free agent signing that nobody in St. Louis saw coming.
When Blues general manager Doug Armstrong attempted to get Lehtera to the NHL before the 2013-14 season and was turned down, it was viewed as a possible last-gasp attempt to bring him to St. Louis.
Who would have thought a simple conversation at the 2014 Sochi Olympics would change the dynamics?
"I had a good chat with him, quite honestly, at the Olympics at the dining hall," Armstrong said of Lehtera, who on July 1 signed a two-year contract. "I told him that we were disappointed that we couldn't come to an agreement, and he said at the end of the day he felt he made a mistake, which was the first step in saying, 'Well, if you can rectify that mistake, if you can get out of your contract, we'd love to have you.' ... This was our last and only opportunity to deal with him with no outside competition. We'd been dealing with the competition of the KHL, and the KHL has been winning up until this year.
"There's very little question he's ready to step in and be a contributing factor in the NHL. We've been working on this for a while since he said he could get out of his deal, but we've been trying to keep it a little bit under wraps not to get anyone's hopes up. He had to do the work first to get out of the deal before we could do anything."
Lehtera reportedly paid money out of his own pocket to get out of his KHL contract. That's how badly he wanted to rectify what he viewed as an error in judgment. And with the Blues in need of playmaking forwards, Lehtera fits the need for a No. 2 center, perhaps playing between Vladimir Tarasenko, his teammate with Sibir Novosibirsk, and Jaden Schwartz.
"You could tell [Lehtera's] just another big forward that we could really use," Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk told NHL.com. "He's got great speed and great skill."
Lehtera scored 55 goals and had 100 assists in four seasons in the KHL, including 12 goals and 44 points in 48 games in 2013-14. He had a goal and four assists for Finland's bronze medal-winning team in Sochi, then had three goals and nine assists in 10 games at the World Championship.
"I talked to two of the coaches during the Olympics what [Lehtera] was like and things like that," said Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, an assistant for Canada in Sochi. "They really liked him. The word that kept coming up was hockey savvy. They really felt like he's got hockey savvy."
Hitchcock has seen enough to know Lehtera can make an impact.
"I don't know where he's going to fit," Hitchcock said. "All I know is he's going to fit. For me, I don't know where he's going to fit, but with that type of moxie and hockey sense and gamesmanship, he's going to find a place to play."
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