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Hecht's new attitude takes wing

It was a good summer for a guy who needed one.

Jochen Hecht, who left Buffalo in the spring bummed and bewildered about the disappearance of his game, packed up the family and hit the road. They landed on an island off the coast of Spain, where the Sabres forward taught his kids how to swim and snorkel.

Meanwhile, Hecht taught himself how to smile again. He hopes it's the key to a career resurgence.

No one will debate that Hecht experienced a season to forget in 2008-09. His point total dwindled, his status on the team lessened and his confidence disappeared. Simply put, he was miserable.

But the summer travels allowed Hecht to clear his mind. He's back in Buffalo eager to show he can be an NHL factor again.

"I still have something to prove," Hecht said Wednesday before scoring in a 3-2 preseason victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs. "Every year in my career I improved a little bit, and last year I took a big step back. I have to prove to myself and to the coaches again that I can play on the top two lines and be an offensive threat and be reliable in our end.

"That's where I'm going to start this year, playing my game. I don't have to worry about anything else, just playing my game and staying positive."

The fresh mind-set is a welcome addition to the Sabres' dressing room, and it's one that's been noticed.

"He's had a great attitude," coach Lindy Ruff said. "He's come in, he's been upbeat."

Hecht insists the happy approach will remain, although he wouldn't get into specifics as to exactly what brought it on.

"I worked on myself this summer -- mental stuff, how to stay positive, have a smile on your face every day," he said. "There's a couple things that you should remind yourself of every day and before games, and that's about it."

The Sabres will be pleased if Hecht reminds them of the player from two and three seasons ago. He had 41 goals and 105 points over the span, earning a four-year, $14.1 million contract extension that kicked in last season.

It kicked in just in time for the wheels to fall off. His goal total dropped by 10 down to a dozen, and his points slid from 49 to 27. He was demoted to the fourth line and threatened with a benching.

Ruff expected more. He still expects more.

"I still feel he has to get to that 40- to 50-point range," Ruff said. "He has to be close to 20 goals. That's where he has to be. His goals are to get back to where we thought he was and where he thinks he should be."

The points should rise if Hecht and his new linemates continue to perform like they did against the Leafs in HSBC Arena. The 32-year-old lined up as the left winger for center Paul Gaustad and right wing Mike Grier.

They are three big-bodied players who are adept at controlling the puck and surrounding the net, and that's exactly what they did.

The trio had three solid scoring chances in the first period before connecting in the second. With Gaustad camped at the top of the crease, Hecht stepped to the left faceoff circle and put a shot past the crowd to give the Sabres a 2-0 lead.

"We should be very good defensively, and with Goose and Griersy being big guys we should create some room offensively, too," Hecht said.

Nathan Paetsch and Cody McCormick also scored for the Sabres, while Ryan Miller made 23 saves. But the Gaustad line was an impressive force in front of a crowd of 11,008, and being back on left wing was a plus for Hecht. He played mostly center last season after spending much of his career along the boards.

"It's just instincts and little stuff that you don't have to think about," he said. "You just take a step or two steps and you're in position. At center, you catch yourself thinking about it. That's what happens when you play 10 years on the wing and then get thrown in at center. I don't mind it once in a while playing center, but I still prefer the wing."

Ruff, though, won't be shy about putting Hecht back in the middle if the need arises.

"He's going to be wherever I put him," Ruff said. "I think the players understand that. His value is he's as good a centerman as he is a winger, and that little bit of depth really helps."

So does a positive attitude, as Hecht is ready to show.

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com

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