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Andrej the Giant

by Bill Meltzer / Philadelphia Flyers
Sometimes all a struggling player needs to get his career back on track is a fresh start in a new city. That seems to be the case with Flyers defenseman Andrej Meszaros. After finding little success with the Tampa Bay Lightning, the 25-year-old Slovak has been outstanding since coming to Philadelphia in an offseason trade. Through the club’s first 48 games of the 2010-11 regular season, Meszaros leads the entire NHL in plus-minus rating with a plus-29.

For most of the season, Meszaros has been paired with 39-year-old veteran Sean O’Donnell (plus-14). Together, the two have stabilized the team’s third defensive pairing, and area that was a trouble spot even during last season’s run to the Stanley Cup Final. More recently, following a foot injury that has knocked star defenseman Chris Pronger out of lineup for at least a month, Meszaros has moved up to the top pairing with Matt Carle while O’Donnell has worked with young Oskars Bartulis.
Meszaros & O'Donnell were considered a shut-down pair through the first half of the season before the Pronger injury forced their split.

“Things have gone good so far this year,” Meszaros acknowledged. “I don’t really think I’m doing anything too different [than in Tampa] but there’s a really good team here and it’s great being here. I’m just relaxed and trying to keep the game as simple as possible. We’re winning a lot and there’s a great organization, so that makes it fun.”

Meszaros’ combination of size and strength has been a valuable addition to the Flyers’ defense corps. He has played a physical style but also has played sound positional hockey. Although he has only been credited with one goal to date, his heavy shot from the point has created numerous deflection and rebound goals for forwards. His 15 assists rank third among defensemen on the team. With Pronger’s injury, Meszaros has recently seen increased power play time.

A former first-round pick of the Ottawa Senators (23rd overall) in 2004, Meszaros’ career got off to a tremendous start. He made his professional debut in Slovakia’s Extraliga at age 17 with Dukla Trencin, one of the most successful teams in the country. Following his selection in the draft, Meszaros took the same step that most mid-to-high-level Slovak (and Czech) prospects have taken in recent years: He left his homeland to play junior hockey in Canada. After one season in the Western Hockey League with the Vancouver Giants, Meszaros made his NHL debut with the Senators in 2005-06.

“I think the reason why so many [Slovak and Czech] guys go to play junior in Canada is that it gives you a chance to get used to the game over here, on and off the ice,” said Meszaros.

Meszaros made an immediate splash in the NHL. He finished his rookie season with 10 goals and 39 points, and was named to the NHL All-Rookie Team along with defenseman Dion Phaneuf (then a member of the Calgary Flames). Placed on a defensive pairing with fellow Slovak Zdeno Chara, Meszaros finished his first season with a plus-39 rating, tied for third in the league overall and first among rookies. In his second NHL season, Meszaros tallied 7 goals, 35 points and logged 102 penalty minutes for a Senators team that reached the Stanley Cup Final.

The good times didn’t last in Ottawa. Numerous Senators players got side-tracked in their careers and personal lives. The 2007-08 season proved to be a tumultuous one for the Senators, but Meszaros still managed to score 9 goals and 36 points. A restricted free agent after the season, Meszaros was heavily pursued by the Tampa Bay Lightning. Meszaros, who parlayed the Lightning’s interest into a lucrative six-year, $24 million contract, had his rights traded to Tampa in exchange for Filip Kuba, former Flyers defenseman Alexandre Picard and a first-round pick. In salary cap terms, the contract pays $4 million per season through the 2013-14 season.

The next two seasons in Tampa were a major disappointment both for the player and the team. In his first season, Meszaros missed 30 games due to injury and finished with two goals and 16 points in 52 games. The team finished last in the Southeast Division, firing coach Barry Melrose after 16 games and promoting longtime Flyers forward Rick Tocchet from assistant to head coach. 

The 2009-10 season went a little better for the team, with the additions of rookie defenseman Victor Hedman and veteran Mattias Ohlund to the blueline and the emergence of center Steven Stamkos to stardom. The Bolts missed the playoffs again but improved to third in the division.

Meszaros’ 2009-10 season fell far short of both the team’s expectations and his own. The defenseman finished with six goals, 18 points and a minus-14 rating at even strength. He gained an unwanted reputation for being turnover prone and for getting beaten on the rush. Although he dressed for 81 of 82 games last season, some have suggested that Meszaros was playing through injury.

“I was OK to play, and I won’t make an excuse,” Meszaros said. “It was just a frustrating season. I don’t know exactly what happened, but I just didn’t play the way I expect from myself.”

After the season, the Flyers surprised the rest of the hockey world by trading a second-round pick in the 2012 Entry Draft to Tampa in exchange for Mezaros. The deal was made on July 1, 2010, the first day of the free agent signing period. The Flyers had previously acquired the rights to impending unrestricted free agent Dan Hamhuis but, unable to get him to commit to a contract, traded his negotiating rights to the Pittsburgh Penguins (Hamhuis ultimately signed with the Vancouver Canucks). Rather than pursuing other big-ticket free agents such as Anton Volchenkov or Paul Martin, the Flyers opted instead to go the trade route to acquire Meszaros. He has made the decision look sound.

“Andrej is a player we liked for a long time. He had a down year last year, but he’d shown before that he can be an effective player and he’s still young. A lot of times, the only way you can get a player with his ability is when he’s struggled a little bit. He’s been very good for us so far,” said Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren.

For his part, Mezaros says that he doesn’t care which pairing he plays on, so long as he feels like the coach has confidence in him. He quickly gained the trust of Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette and has been used in all game situations. Although he’d like to produce a few more goals (especially with Pronger out of the  lineup), Meszaros said that he’s not about to change his game in pursuit of higher offensive totals this season.

“I just care about winning. This team came close winning the Cup last season, and that’s the only thing I care about. I want to do whatever it takes to win, and the defensive part has to come first,” he said.

Meszaros has never been the loud and boisterous type off the ice. He doesn’t fill reporters notebooks with colorful quotes, but he has stood out at times for his appearance. Early in his career, the intricately-tattooed Slovak sported a bleached-blond curly mullet.

“Yeah, that wasn’t a pretty sight,” he said with a broad grin.

Nowadays, Meszaros is earning attention solely for his strong play on the ice. It has been a welcomed sight for the club whenever he steps on the ice.
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