Jori Lehtera is light-years removed from his days as a top-line forward centering superstar Vladimir Tarasenko in St. Louis.
Now at the age of 30, Lehtera’s offensive production seems to be regressing on a curve similar to his skating ability. Built like Paul Bunyan, Lehtera moves as if he’s dragging Babe the Ox behind him, which severely limits his playmaking ability and his ability to create open looks to finish scoring chances. His first year in Philadelphia produced just eight points as a mostly fourth-liner.
The past four years have been a continuous downward spiral. Following Lehtera’s first NHL season in 2014-15, the Blues rewarded him with a three-year, $14 million contract following a season of 14 goals and 44 points. Expecting more, Lehtera simply couldn’t deliver on the NHL’s smaller ice surface in which time and space can be broken down into microseconds.
The Blues were so ready to rid themselves of Lehtera after 2016-17, last summer they were willing to surrender two first-round picks just to clear his $4.7 million cap hit off their books for the remaining two seasons.
“The whole season was a struggle,” Lehtera said about his final year in St. Louis. “I just couldn’t get everything out of myself. It wasn’t just a couple of things. It was a lot of big things, and a lot of small things together.”
And who could fault draft architect Ron Hextall for taking on a bad contract when the return was two first-round picks, one that is now the 14th overall selection in this year’s draft? That was the allure of the Brayden Schenn trade, not Lehtera himself. It still seems logical that a buyout would free up the necessary cap space as Lehtera is the third-highest paid forward under contract behind Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek.
“You can look at every contract, a good one, a bad one. You've got to balance it out,” Hextall said. “You have to be under the cap. There’s ramifications. You start buying players out that have two, three or four years left on theirs — all of sudden, you’re dragging that out.”
Except the Flyers aren’t creating a long-term pension plan like they did with burdensome goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov. With Lehtera, it’s a simple business transaction similar to the buyouts of Danny Briere, and most recently R.J. Umberger, who both had a year remaining on their respective contracts with a cap hit spread out over two seasons.
Whereas the Bryzgalov buyout was more of a head-on car collision, this would be something resembling a door ding.
In buying out Lehtera, the Flyers would receive a cap savings of around $3.4 million next season with a buyout cap hit of $1,666,667 in 2019-20. Seems like an obvious win-win — a savings in actual dollars, plus cap space while opening up a roster spot. However, Hextall values Lehtera beyond his numbers.
“There’s a lot of reasons you don’t just buy a guy out because he makes a little bit more than that type of role should make,” Hextall said. “Jori was a good role player for us. He’s a terrific human being. He works hard. He’s really good with our young kids. There’s a lot more to it than just saying, ‘OK, Jori Lehtera was playing center and playing 8-10 minutes.’”
NHL teams will have a two-week buyout window from mid-June (or 48 hours after the Stanley Cup is awarded) to June 30.
“Right now, and I told him this, the plan is to have him back,” Hextall said last month. “Everything’s up for change. Right now, we’ll have Jori back.”
Which may be disheartening for those expecting the Flyers to take an aggressive approach this summer in free agency.