This summer, when news came out that Andrej Sekera had sustained a second serious leg injury, I was not only skeptical about the chances that he would return to the Oilers this season, I thought there was a chance we would never see him play another NHL game.
If you were to dig through the archives of my tweets and time on the radio, you would have heard me say things like:
“He’s done. He’s 32 years old, he was already slowing down. If he couldn’t recover from one injury, why would he be able to recover from a second?
“Even if he plays again, and I don’t think he will, what are we expecting from him? He won’t save the blueline.”
“People keep saying he’ll be back in January, why would you rush him back this year? Have him sit out and be ready for 2019-20 if that’s even possible.”
I’m not even kidding, those are near direct quotes (I cleaned up the English a little bit), but you really couldn’t blame me for thinking like that. A lot of other people agreed with me. He’s 32-year-old and coming off his second major surgery. When he saw him at the back half of the 2017-18 season, he looked like a shell of his former self. No one would have been surprised if Andrej Sekera never regained his 2016-17 form.
I’m happy to report that I was wrong. I was so wrong and I’ve never been happier about being so off base. I’m fully aware that a lot of my takes and predictions end up looking bad in hindsight, but I was proven wrong in a hurry on this one.
Sekera has returned to the lineup and brought a calming presence to the team’s third pairing.
I want to start this by giving some credit to Ken Hitchcock who has done a great job of easing Sekera into the lineup. He never played more than 18 minutes in a game until last game against the New York Rangers. When he returned from his first injury in December of 2017, he played over 18 minutes three times in his first five games back in the lineup. He wasn’t eased into things at all. The conditioning stint in Bakersfield no doubt helped as well.
He was given a chance to slowly walk back into things instead of just throwing him right off the deep end. Hitchcock deserves some praise for how he put Sekera back into the lineup.
When it came time to push Sekera, Hitchcock did it and the veteran defenseman proved he was ready.
On Monday against the Rangers, he played 23:21 which was 5:59 more than he had in any other game this season. Not only did Sekera make it through the game, he excelled in it. The Oilers gave up 26 shots and 22 scoring chances at even strength. Despite playing heavy minutes and only starting two shifts in the offensive zone, Sekera was only on the ice for four shots and four scoring chances against. When he was out there, I sensed that he was controlling the game with his ability to efficiently get the puck out of his own end and make smart moves at the offensive blueline.
While the team has found a new level of success since Sekera returned, there has been one player who has really benefited from the Slovakian defenseman’s presence.
Matt Benning has not been having a very good season, but since he’s been reunited with Sekera, not only has he looked more confident on the ice, but his numbers have almost all increased.
This season, at even strength without Sekera, Benning had a 48.68% Corsi-for, a 55.93% goals for, and a 50.97 scoring chances for while starting 52.17% of his shifts in the offensive zone. That might be a product of the fact that he was either playing with a lower calibre partner, he spent over 100 minutes with both Kevin Gravel and Jason Garrison, or that when he did have a better partner, which was often Darnell Nurse, he was playing over his head in a second pairing role.
With Sekera, he has looked very comfortable in his third pairing role and there’s no doubt having a veteran partner to rely on has done wonders for his game. At even strength with Sekera, he has 52.91% Corsi for, a 66.67% goals for, and a 54.46% scoring chances for while starting 49.33% of his shifts in the offensive zone.
Sekera has seemingly turned Matt Benning back into the competent third pairing defenseman the Oilers were hoping he was and given Ken Hitchcock a more reliable third pairing that can be used in all situations. That has also helped bring Mikko Koskinen’s game back to the level it needs to be at.
Since Sekera has returned, Koskinen has a 0.934 SV% and a 2.20 GAA to go along with it. Those are elite numbers. I’m not saying it’s sustainable, but it’s a fantastic sign that when he has six NHL calibre defensemen in front of him, he’s capable of doing this for extended stretches.
All these numbers are great, but they wouldn’t really mean anything if the Oilers record wasn’t improving but since the return of #2, the Oilers are 7-2-2 and have found themselves pushing to get back into the playoff race.
I’m not going to tell you “I told you so” when it comes to the recent play of Andrej Sekera, because I didn’t. In fact, I told you the exact opposite. It’s never felt this good to be wrong.