EDMONTON — It’s been a long and injury-riddled road for Andrej Sekera, since Ryan Getzlaf caught him with a clean, hard check in Game 5 of the 2017 second round, tearing Sekera’s ACL.
He returned for 36 games last season, for which he was ill-prepared to be playing as an NHL defenceman, and was minus-15. Then, Sekera tore an Achilles tendon while training last August, causing him to miss the first 58 games of this season.
But tonight, finally, he’s back. So we asked Sekera, will his ability to join the NHL on the fly hinge more on the state of his Achilles tendon, or his mental state, as he takes the ice in a lightning fast stretch run?
"It’s 20 per cent down there, and 80 per cent in your head," said the 32-year-old. "You’ve got to put yourself in a good position to be successful: Good gaps, follow the rush, don’t do anything crazy stupid. Just keep the game simple.
"It’s been a long time for me."
Let’s not kid ourselves: Back to back, serious leg injuries like the ones Sekera has suffered can end a player’s career. If a defenceman at his age loses a half a step, he’s done at this level. Period.
With Sekera having two years remaining at $5.5 million per, the Oilers are hoping they get the player back they paid for: a useful, puck-moving veteran who works the top of the second powerplay unit.
Head coach Ken Hitchcock doesn’t know how Sekera will play tonight versus Arizona, but has come to learn that, "presence-wise, he commands the respect in the room. He’s a pro’s pro."
"I think everyone in that room, and every coach, is hoping that he has a great start, shows that he can keep up and continue his career," Hitchcock added. "Because he has the ultimate respect from everyone in that room.
"He asks questions in meetings that nobody else asks. He wants clarifications that nobody else is willing to ask about. He asks those questions. That’s a pro. Everyone is hoping that he really has a good start."
Sekera played five games at AHL Bakersfield during his rehab stint, but now he’ll be under the bright lights of the NHL. He’d just love to be the same guy he was back in the spring of 2017, a top-four defenceman who helped bring the Oilers to within one win of a Western Conference Final.
"That’s what I’ve been working for, for the last couple of months. Hopefully I can do all the things I need to do, to be the same guy," Sekera said. "It’s more about timing, the chemistry, getting to know the system. All the stuff that (comes naturally after playing all season). For me it’s about a lot of good gaps, a lot of puck moving, and a lot of talk on the ice."
Sam Gagner once broke his jaw late in the pre-season (courtesy of new teammate Zack Kassian when the later was a Canuck), and then rushed back in December. Gagner had a tough time playing catch up.
"Being able to play those five games in the American League will help Andrej with his timing and stuff, but the NHL is a different level. A whole different speed," said Gagner.
What’s the biggest factor?
"Just not playing in the games," Gagner said. "You can do everything you can to be in top shape, working on your cardio and all that kind of stuff. But playing in a game is a different animal, just the adrenalin that comes with it. The timing, the speed.
"The first game you’re on adrenalin. It’s after that it becomes tougher. The second, third, fourth games is where you start to feel it, I’ve always found."