Andrej Sekera’s potential was visible when he played in Buffalo. He had elite skating ability and an eye for offense, two traits that defensemen often lack.
The potential, though, never grew into anything more during his six seasons with the Sabres. He’d have a good game here, a poor game there. Turnovers were just as likely as points. Time ran out, and the Sabres sent him to Carolina on draft day last summer.
Sekera returned Thursday looking a lot lighter, mainly because he’s shed the “potential” label. He’s having a breakout season, one that continued when he scored the winning goal, added two assists and was plus-4 in Carolina’s 5-3 victory over the Sabres.
“I guess they use me to my potential, and I just try to repay them with hard work,” Sekera said in First Niagara Center. “Change is sometimes good. I feel like I’m getting all the opportunities, and I just try to play hard every game.”
The defenseman put a shot through the legs of Jhonas Enroth with 10:10 to play, giving the Hurricanes their first lead at 4-3. He celebrated with a small fist pump, not a wild, over-the-top party. Even though it was understated, it clearly meant a lot.
“You have memories, you have feelings before the game, after, because you know all the personnel here,” Sekera said. “It’s basically part of your lifetime here. It’s still being in your head and in your heart, but it’s the nature of the business. You never know when you can be gone.
“Every win feels good, especially because the league is so tight. Battling for playoffs basically starts now. We want to make sure we finish strong before the Olympic break.”
Carolina improved to 22-19-9 and sits three points out of a wild-card spot. The Sabres fell to 0-3-2 in their last five games. They play Saturday in Columbus against the red-hot Blue Jackets, who’ve won eight straight.
“Right now, game 50, game 60, there’s another step in this league,” Sabres captain Steve Ott said. “Good teams take a big step because they’re getting geared up for playoffs. For us, we have to be ready because these teams are coming in and they’re hungry.”
Sekera is the Hurricanes’ top blue-liner, and he’ll soon have the career-best numbers to back it up. He’s already set a personal best with eight goals and is just two points shy of tying his top mark of 29.
“I always knew what kind of player I am, and I tried to play to that,” Sekera said. “It’s like the system they play there fits me better. Things are going my way right now.”
While fans who watched his inconsistent play in Buffalo might be surprised by Sekera’s year, those who know him best are not shocked at all. Mike Weber, who began his pro career as Sekera’s defense partner in 2007-08 as a 19-year-old, couldn’t stop smiling while talking about the Slovakian.
“He’s one of those guys that always worked hard but always seemed to have fun with the game,” Weber said. “I don’t think it’s a surprise that Reggie’s having a great year. He’s always had the skating ability and the offensive vision to get things done. He showed spurts of it here, and given a little bit bigger opportunity in Carolina to showcase that, he’s done great with it.”
Sekera is skating more than 23 minutes per night with the Hurricanes, which is about two minutes more than he got in Buffalo last season. What he’s doing in those minutes is a huge difference. The third-round pick in 2004 had two goals and 12 points in 37 games during his final year in Buffalo.
“He’s playing awesome,” said Carolina forward and former Sabres winger Nathan Gerbe. “I always thought highly of him here, so for me it’s no different, but for everyone else it raises some eyebrows. He’s just a good player. He’s a shutdown D-man but also pretty offensive when he gets going.”
Sekera will get to show his skills once again on the world stage at the Olympics. He played for Slovakia during the Vancouver Games in 2010, putting up one goal in seven games while skating 17:08 per night. Aside from Boston captain Zdeno Chara, it’s likely no Slovakian defenseman will get more work in Russia next month.
“It’s still a couple weeks left, so hopefully the health will be good,” Sekera said as he playfully knocked on his shaved head. “It’s a great opportunity. I was in Vancouver, and it was fun. It’s a lifetime experience. It’s a dream come true. Every four years, the best players on the planet are going to be there and compete for the medal, so it will be interesting.”