DETROIT - When Brett Lebda agreed to join the Springfield Falcons earlier this season, the end goal remained the same even if the first step back was a small one. His desire to play in the NHL was still burning, and he decided to take advantage of the opportunity.
The 30-year-old native of Buffalo Grove, Ill. played in 26 games for the Blue Jackets’ AHL affiliate and served as a leader on the blue line after Aaron Johnson opened the season in Columbus and stayed. With a young group of defensemen in Springfield, Lebda approached the situation with a positive outlook and balanced mentorship with persistence.
Patience paid off as Lebda signed a one-year contract with the Blue Jackets on Thursday.
“(The AHL) is a good hockey league; there are a lot of good players down there and it's a developmental league,” Lebda said. “I got a chance to go down and play a little different role as a veteran on the team and help in that way.
“It helped me add a little more to my game, and in the end, it was all about getting back here and now I'm getting the chance, so that's a good thing.”
Lebda’s career appears to be trending upward again after a bit of a rollercoaster the past few seasons. He broke into the NHL in the 2005-06 season after injuries bit the Red Wings’ defense corps and ended up playing 46 games for coach Mike Babcock. The following season, Lebda earned a full-time job in Detroit and recorded five goals and 13 assists in 74 games.
The downside came last year when he was traded from the Toronto Maple Leafs then to Nashville in the offseason. Lebda never dressed for the Predators and was an unrestricted free agent this summer, and waited patiently for the next opportunity to come along.
Needless to say, he said he is grateful for the Blue Jackets offering a chance to return to the highest level.
“You can never take anything for granted like that, but (returning to the NHL) was always a goal of mine,” Lebda said. “I feel like I can still contribute at this level, and that was the goal from the start.
“However long it took, just to go down and hone my skills and hopefully get a shot to come back here and prove myself.”
And it almost seems fitting that he joins the Blue Jackets in time for tonight’s game against the Red Wings, in a city where he cut his teeth as an NHL player. Lebda’s first practice with the Blue Jackets was an optional skate yesterday at Nationwide Arena, and he said he’s not sure if his Columbus debut will come tonight at Joe Louis Arena.
Lebda was willing to wait, and in the wake of Radek Martinek’s season-ending concussion symptoms, the phone rang again. Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson worked swiftly with his agent, he said, and the finishing touches to the contract were applied earlier this week.
“They've been really good about open communication,” Lebda said of the Blue Jackets. “It wasn't all the time, but within the last week talks have started and got the ball rolling a little bit. It happened quite quickly, but at the same time, it's a good feeling.”
He last suited up for an NHL game on Mar. 26, 2011 as a member of the Maple Leafs – ironically in Detroit against the Red Wings. The butterflies and nerves are sure to be out in full force if he plays tonight, but Lebda said he plans to stick with the style of play that got his foot in the door at the NHL level.
“I'm not going to go out there and kill anyone, but I play solid defensively and get the puck out of our end as fast as possible,” Lebda said. “(My game is) making a good first pass and chipping in on the offense when I can.”
**Interim Head Coach Todd Richards stated Saturday morning that he does not expect to play Lebda in the game vs. Detroit.