DENVER -- As it turns out, it really is possible to teach an older defenseman new tricks.
Jan Hejda, 35, is a perfect example. The Colorado Avalanche defenseman, an eight-year NHL veteran, is having a rebirth of sorts under first-year coach Patrick Roy.
The Avalanche will take a three-game losing streak into their game against the Chicago Blackhawks at Pepsi Center on Tuesday night, but they still own a very respectable 14-5-0 record and have been one of the surprise stories of the season after finishing last in the Western Conference last season.
Hejda's solid all-around play has been a major factor in the Avalanche's revival. He has two goals, three assists, a plus-12 rating and is averaging a team-high 22:48 of ice time. He has 51 hits, 39 blocked shots and has played a pivotal sole in the team's improved penalty killing.
Defense - COL
GOALS: 2 | ASST: 3 | PTS: 5
SOG: 24 | +/-: 12
It might have been a different scenario for Hejda if he hadn't accepted Roy's demand during training camp to change how he positioned himself in the defensive zone.
"I knew he was a good defenseman," Roy told NHL.com. "The first day we were on the ice, I asked him to move out of his comfort zone and he's done it, and since that day I just feel that he's been playing some outstanding hockey for us. There were times where I felt he was too close to the goalie and we asked him to move up. Teams love to have their three forwards high in the slot area, and there was always a big gap between them and our goaltender.
"We forced him to move up and at first he had a hard time to adapt to this positioning. It was a big change for him and I really appreciate that he had the confidence in us. He started doing it and defensively, in our zone, he's [disrupting] a lot of plays with the quality of his stick work. He deserves a lot of credit for it."
It was a drastic change for Hejda, who admits he didn't like it at first and wondered if he'd ever be able to adapt.
"We did some drills in training camp and [Roy] stopped the drills almost every time I was out there," Hejda said. "I wasn't sure if I could do it. I didn't know which way to go. I said I wasn't comfortable and he said it was great because he told me right from the start that I would need to be out of the comfort zone. I was for the first week, for sure.
"My feeling was I will make it and I will be a better player and he may extend my career, or I will just be traded and play for some other team. I didn't want to change. I wasn't sure if I could. But it's probably the best thing that has happened in the last five years of my career. I'm really happy to play for him and I'm really happy that he changed my attitude."
Roy has made it clear that every player, regardless of position, has to be involved in the defensive aspect of the game. The forwards have done a better job of making it more difficult for teams to skate through the neutral zone and they haven't been afraid to block shots in their end of the ice.
"The biggest difference is we have a totally different style of game," Hejda said. "It's not just the defensemen who defend; we have lots of help from our forwards, and that's a huge thing."
It also helped that goalies Semyon Varlamov and Jean-Sebastien Giguere were playing so well before the Avalanche hit their current three-game skid.
"The last time I had this much fun was in 2003 in the Czech League when we won the championship," said Hejda, who is from Prague but lives in Colorado for nearly the entire year with his wife Tereza and their two children, Natalie and Matheas.
Hejda, who made his NHL debut in 2006-07 with the Edmonton Oilers, might have wondered if he made a mistake by joining the Avalanche as a free agent on July 1, 2011 after spending four seasons with the Columbus Blue Jackets. He signed a four-year, $13 million contract, but the Avalanche missed the playoffs the first two years and it was difficult coming to the rink every day. Hejda had a minus-17 rating his first season with Colorado in 2011-12, even though the Avalanche won 41 games and were in the hunt for a playoff berth until the final week of the season.
Then came last season, when the Avalanche won 16 of 48 games and finished 29th in the overall standings, leading to a major shakeup. Team president Josh Kroenke named former star Joe Sakic executive vice president of hockey operations and Roy replaced Joe Sacco as coach.
"We were just losing and it was hard," Hejda said. "This is my third season here and the last two years we didn't change too much. I think that's what we were missing, actually. We have some new guys, but I think the biggest change is the system we play."
The 6-foot-4, 237-pound Hejda has been paired with Erik Johnson (6-4, 232), another of Roy's reclamation projects, and they have been the Avalanche's top defensemen since the season started. Plagued by injuries last season when he didn't score a goal for the first time in his career, Johnson has two goals, five assists and a plus-11 rating in 19 games while averaging 21:24 of ice time.
"We're paired against the other teams' top lines every night and doing a good job," Johnson said. "Jan is a good, solid physical defenseman. The coaching change was a big thing for his game. He's playing smart and with a lot of confidence. We're creating offensively and we've been pretty stingy defensively."
Hejda has never been a big scorer in the NHL; he's scored five goals twice and his career high for points is 21, set in 2008-09. But he's a good skater and he has a hard shot, and Roy has given Avalanche defensemen more freedom to get involved in the offense. They scored five goals last season and already have collected six in 2013-14.
"We play more aggressive, more pinching in the offensive zone, because we know the forwards are backing us up we know we can go and pinch," Hejda said. "It's great, more chances to score. Of course, I like to score goals, but I have the same feeling after I help kill a 5-on-3 penalty. It's a great feeling because it's a huge help for the team.
"I'm trying to be on top of my game every single game. I feel like I'm more physical and more ready for every single game. I'm skating more than I was in the past. I'm playing to make the playoffs. I'm playing for the other guys. I want them to count on me and I want to make a difference."