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Central: Late-blooming Hejda showing his value

by Larry Wigge /
Jan Hejda came to the NHL from Prague with a dream and some technically sound defensive skills. But there was no flash and dash ... and, oh, yeah, he was 28 when he first stepped onto a rink in North America in 2006 with the Edmonton Oilers. So, there were no guarantees that he would grasp the new language or even embrace the foreign hockey style. But ...

Nearly four years after being drafted by Buffalo, Hejda is in Columbus, where the Blue Jackets were a little lost in the four games the 6-foot-3, 209-pound defenseman missed with a wrist injury after the Jackets started the season 4-1.

No one's going to mistake Hejda for Chris Pronger or Nicklas Lidstrom, but when it comes to standing in the way of an opponent's scoring chance, Hejda takes a back seat to no one.

Coming into this week's divisional matchup with Detroit on Wednesday, the Jackets were 6-1-1 in games with Hejda, who was an impressive plus-9 in those games.

But that's just the half of the story for this plus-plus player.

The soft-spoken, hard-hitting defenseman is a plus-52 in his two-plus seasons with the Jackets -- and that represents the League's fourth-best mark during that span coming into this week behind Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom (plus-79) and Pavel Datsyuk (plus-77) and Chicago's Duncan Keith (plus-66).

"He's a name that was sort of on our radar when I worked in Edmonton and (former NHL defenseman) Frank Musil began filing reports on him when he was playing in the Russian Super League," explained Jackets GM Scott Howson, who was speaking of his days in the Oilers organization. "At that time, we were looking to see what Buffalo was going to do with him. He was still there, he was still on Buffalo's list.

"(The Oilers) made their move (trading a seventh-round pick in 2007), not knowing if he'd even consider coming to the NHL."

One year after his NHL debut with the Oilers, Hejda was a free agent. With Howson moving on to Columbus and Edmonton, coming off a run to the Stanley Cup Final and trying to make the Chris Pronger trade to Anaheim, Scott found himself in the Hejda hunt again. He offered Jan the same contract package the Oilers told him they would make with him by mid-July. But there was a very big difference between the two offers. Edmonton's proposal was just a promise that something would be done in the next week or so. Howson's offer to Hejda and his agent was guaranteed money right there in front of them.

Another difference; the Jackets' offer was good for only the next three hours. Five hours later, Hejda's agent called Howson back and said if the deal was still on the table they'd take it. That was on July 5, 2007 -- and it's a date that the Columbus GM often looks back on and wonders how lucky he was to get this defenseman under contract.

"He was experienced internationally and made a pretty good debut in Edmonton," said Howson. "He was solid and steady. Very consistent."

Blocking shots, making hits and putting up a plus-number next to his resume have been a part of Jan Hejda's every day stat sheet.

"The game was softer over there," Hejda explained and then winked. "I like it quicker. I like to be involved, whether it's blocking a shot or making a hit. I'm glad I chose to come to the NHL."

Whether you take stock in the plus-minus statistic, Lidstrom, Datsyuk, Keith and Hejda's statospheric figures underscore their importance. With Hejda, those stats have come with a team not nearly as well off in the standings as Detroit or Chicago.

"That plus statistic is no accident," said Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock. "He goes out every game and plays against the other team's top lines. I don't think he gets enough credit for the job he does."

When Hitchcock came to Columbus, taking over a team that had never been to the playoffs, you knew he'd start by insisting that the Blue Jackets have a top-4 of defensemen like he had in Dallas when the Stars went to the Stanley Cup Final in 1999 (and won it all) and again in 2000 with a stopper pairing of Derian Hatcher and Richard Matvichuk and a puck-moving duo of Sergei Zubov and Daryl Sydor.

In Columbus, it's Rusty Klesla and Hejda, Anton Stralman and Fedor Tyutin and a third pairing of Marc Methot and Mike Commodore.

Hejda is leading that stopper pairing each night, which shows you that persistence and timing can be very important in getting the guy you want.

Looking for a power surge -- Every day at Chicago's practice, coach Joel Quenneville puts the Blackhawks through their drills on the power play. But the effort has proven fruitless so far, with the Hawks ranked 22nd in the 30-team NHL with the man advantage.

It's an enigma when you consider Chicago's lineup with Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Kris Versteeg and Dustin Byfuglien up front. But Jonathan Toews missed six-straight games before returning Monday from concussion-like symptoms. That seemed to light a spark for Chicago, which scored twice with the extra man -- one a goal from Toews -- to defeat the Kings, 4-1.

In the meantime, one secret weapon could be free-agent pickup Tomas Kopecky, even if his NHL-high in goals was six with Detroit last season.

"I watched Homer plant himself just outside the blue paint for a lot of years and I've talked to him about it. He's made a career out of that talent. Maybe I can too." -- Tomas Kopecky on former teammate Tomas Holmstrom

Kopecky only had 1 goal in his first 15 games this season and only one on the power in his three previous seasons with the Red Wings -- that coming last season. But he's got the body -- 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds -- and mindset to do many of the same things that have made former teammate Tomas Holmstrom one of the most feared players in the game in front of the net.

"I watched Homer plant himself just outside the blue paint for a lot of years and I've talked to him about it," Kopecky said. "He's made a career out of that talent. Maybe I can too.

"Honestly, I like it there because there's always a lot of pucks lying around the goal crease. It's a tough area. You have to have courage to stand there with guys shooting puck at you at 90-100 mph. But Homer told me the rewards are many."

Quenneville admitted he's thinking about parking Kopecky in front of the net on the power play.

He's baaack -- There isn't much flashy about Martin Erat. Except those flashes of talent he's displayed for the Nashville Predators the last seven seasons.

Erat, who was coming off three consecutive 50-point-plus seasons, had just 1 goal and 1 point in his first 11 games before he suffered a lower-body injury Oct. 28. When he returned for a game in Los Angeles on Nov. 7, he assisted on Nashville's first two goals by Francis Bouillon and Cody Franson in a 3-1 win against the Kings.

The assists were the first and second of the season for Erat.

"He's a really underrated player, except in our market," said coach Barry Trotz. "He's a terrific two-way player and exceptional passer.

"The way we've been struggling to score goals, we need a player like Marty to help pick us up."

Not a book appendix -- The St. Louis Blues were waiting for second-year forward T.J. Oshie to take off. He began to show the in-your-face skills that made him so enjoyable to watch last season in a game against Minnesota on Oct. 23.

"He was our best player, banging into people and making things happen again," said Blues President John Davidson. "Little did we know something very wrong could have happened."

Oshie began complaining of a stomach ache. And, after doctors took a good look at him, they rushed him to the hospital, where he underwent an emergency appendectomy at 3 a.m.

"When you get to this level, you never want to come out of the lineup," Oshie explained. "I thought I just had a bad stomach ache."

To show how much athletes today miss playing, Oshie was bugging the Blues to get back into the lineup and on the ice for practice less than a week after the surgery. But the team held him out. When doctors finally gave him the OK to play, Oshie returned to action Nov. 5 and he was all over the ice, firing a season-high six shots on goal. He also had two hits and one blocked shot. Two nights later, he had St. Louis' only goal in Philadelphia.

Said coach Andy Murray, "Effort like T.J.'s was just what the doctor ordered."

By the numbers -- Columbus' Rick Nash has become renown for some of his strong-skating solo dashes over the years. On Nov. 7, Nash scored a shorthanded breakaway goal to give the Blue Jackets a 3-2 victory against Carolina. It was Nash's first unassisted goal this season, after he led all NHL players with 10 unassisted goals last season. ... Shark hunter extraordinaire? That's Detroit center Henrik Zetterberg, whose third-period goal on Nov. 5 tied the score 1-1 against San Jose. Zetterberg later clinched a victory for Detroit when he converted his shootout attempt against Evgeni Nabokov. Zetterberg has scored 9 goals (in nine games) against San Jose since the beginning of the 2007-08 season, the highest total over that span by any Sharks opponent. ... Nashville goaltender Dan Ellis' career has been up-and-down the last little while. But not in L.A., where he made 27 saves, including 14 in the third period, to lead the Predators to a 3-1 victory against the Kings on Nov. 7. Ellis has won all three of his career starts against the Kings in Los Angeles, including his NHL debut with the Dallas Stars on February 18, 2004, allowing only five goals in those three games. ... Blue Jackets goalie Mathieu Garon stopped 32 of 35 Atlanta shots to in a 4-3 win Nov. 4. Garon has a 27-7-2 career record in games in which he's faced at least 35 shots on goal, including a current streak of 10 consecutive wins in such games dating to February 2008. ... Mark down another of those up-and-coming youngsters for the St. Louis Blues. Lars Eller, the 13th pick in the 2007 Entry Draft, played in his first game for the Blues November 5 vs. Calgary and he became the 12th player in team history to score a goal in his first game, when he tipped in a shot in a 2-1 overtime loss. The goal ended St. Louis' goalless streak at 168 minutes, 7 seconds. And it was the first of three straight overtime/shootout losses for the Blues in a four-day span.

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