There are not many players who can boast that they scored a goal in their first NHL game. Some famous examples include Mario Lemieux, Luc Robitaille, Jonathan Toews, and Auston Matthews — who was just showing off when he scored four goals in his NHL debut.
Another player on that exclusive list is New York Rangers winger Vinni Lettieri. Unlike the aforementioned stars, it took Lettieri 39 games to score his second career NHL goal. Of course, Lettieri wasn’t a can’t-miss prospect like Lemieux, Toews, or Matthews when he scored his first goal on Dec. 29, 2017; he was an undrafted college free agent that was a longshot to make it to the show.
About 15 months after scoring his first goal in the show, Lettieri is working hard to make his mark after a Rangers’ deadline sell-off for the second straight year. The difference this time around is that Lettieri emerged as one of the AHL’s best players this year. At the time of his call up on March 18, Lettieri had 45 points in 44 games with the Wolf Pack.
Lettieri leads all players on Hartford in shots on goal per game (3.75) and points per game (1.05), including Peter Holland who was the team’s leading scorer before he was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks.
Those are impressive numbers, but it’s worth noting that only 19 of Lettieri’s 45 points were primary points picked up at 5v5. Another 19 of his points were earned on the Wolf Pack’s power play. However, it’s also important to remember just how bad the Wolf Pack have been this year. Hartford has a 43.1 percent goals for percentage at 5v5 this year and are 20th in the league in average shots for per game. Averaging better than a point-per-game for that team was and is quite an accomplishment.
When determining whether or not Lettieri has what it takes to be a consistent NHL player much will be said about his blood lines and size, but those traits aren’t nearly as important as some scouts and analysts believe they are.
Hayden Speak, the creator of Prospect-Stats.com, made a presentation at SeaHAC 2019 called “Making the Jump: How AHL players become NHL players.” Unsurprisingly, Speak found that as an AHL player’s age increases, their chance of making the NHL decreases. What’s most interesting about that trend is that once a player starts an AHL season at 23 or older, they have less than a 13 percent chance of making the NHL.
Lettieri was 23 at the start of the 2018-19 season.
For every AHL success story like Jonathan Marchessault there’s a dozen guys like Cory Conacher, Chris Bourque, Chris Mueller, Chris Terry, or Peter Holland; guys who consistently put up great numbers in the AHL but, for whatever reason, are unable to stick in the NHL. The odds are definitely against Lettieri because of his age, but that doesn’t mean that the book is already closed on his NHL career.
The person holding the key to his future is head coach David Quinn. What happens next for Lettieri — who will be a restricted free agent on July 1 — comes down to what Quinn wants and expects to see from a fourth line winger.
In a recent chat with Colin Stephenson of Newsday, the Rangers’ head coach gave the undersized winger a positive review after he scored his first goal of the year.
“Everybody’s auditioning for next year — him, obviously, being a younger guy and the situation he’s in, probably a little bit more so,’’ Quinn said of Lettieri. “But I’ve liked his purpose, I’ve liked his intentions. He had a good night on the power play [Monday]. He’s played more of a straight-line game, I thought, and he’s made some progress defensively.”
It’s officially crunch time for the Minnesotan. The goal that Lettieri scored against the Penguins was his first point in 21 NHL games this year. In other words, he’s got a lot of catching up to do if he wants to be someone who is more than an afterthought when Quinn and Jeff Gorton start projecting what next season’s roster is going to look like.