At 25, Andrej Sekera is heading into a phase of his career at which he has shed the prospect label. It's his fourth season with the Buffalo Sabres and he should be firmly entrenched as a regular, both because of his play and the four-year, $11-million contract he signed in July.
There's the issue for the Sabres. They've seen brilliant play from Sekera and there's been some brutal stretches that have caused coach Lindy Ruff to make Sekera a healthy scratch.
There should be no more of that. Everyday contributions are what's expected of Sekera now.
Maybe it's too much to ask him to be the guy who was the NHL's Second Star of the Week in March after joining John van Boxmeer (1981) as the only Sabres defensemen ever with five straight two-point games. But he shouldn't look like an overmatched youngster any more either.
"I felt I was doing the same things I have always been doing," Sekera said this week in First Niagara Center. "I was moving my feet, passing the puck and a little bit more aware of my defensive zone play and things worked out great. Sometimes you're trying and nothing is going to work out, sometimes you're not even pushing and it happens for you."
Sekera scored three goals in 76 games last season but posted career highs in assists (26), points (29) and plus-minus (plus-11). An upper-body injury limited him to just two games in the playoff loss to Philadelphia.
"He played at a very high level. He was an important player for us down the stretch," Ruff said. "The injury in the playoffs obviously hurt us."
Sekera's hot streak came immediately after a three-game benching.
"Consistency involves the battle in your own end," Ruff said. "It's having the jump to get up offensively to make a difference, which is his strong point. We want to play him to his strongest asset, which is getting up ice and making things happen."
Ruff got a first-hand look at another strong stretch by Sekera when the defenseman was one of the stars of Slovakia's 2010 Olympic team in Vancouver. Sekera's homeland is only about a six-hour drive from Berlin, and he said he will have nearly two dozen friends and family members in the stands next weekend when the Sabres meet the Los Angeles Kings there to wrap up their European sojourn.
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience for some guys," he said. "To see a different rink, international style hockey, different people, cities and lifestyle out there will be a very good experience for us."
The Sabres' seven-man defense corps is clearly improved with the additions of Christian Ehrhoff and Robyn Regehr. Tyler Myers, Sekera and Jordan Leopold all have big-money deals while Mike Weber and Marc-Andre Gragnani are still in the prospect mode but offer huge upsides.
"It's going to be tough," Ruff said. "There's seven players that can all play. I know one thing for sure: We're going to use all seven."
Sekera is taking nothing for granted.
"Every single guy can play NHL level hockey and it's up to us how well we perform," he said. "Whoever plays good will play. I know I have to play a bigger role on this team than I used to and continue the strong games I had last season and keep improving."
Sekera said the contract won't put any more pressure on him to perform.
"I want to be helpful for my teammates and it doesn't matter if you have a one-year deal or a five-year deal," he said. "You still have to perform. They believe in you and you don't want to disappoint the trust they showed. I was very happy to get a deal done. It shows how they believe in me and the potential I have."