COLUMBUS, Ohio - Michael Peca is hoping that the good season he was expecting last year arrives now that he's signed with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The veteran NHL centre expected great things when he joined his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs a year ago, but a devastating knee injury got in the way of that.
Peca suffered a broken right tibia and a torn medial collateral ligament after a knee-on-knee collision with Chicago's Jim Vandermeer last December.
It was the end of his season - and his career as a Maple Leaf.
"Certainly last year was disappointing that I couldn't play a full season there," says Peca. "It was unfortunate that I got hurt. My game had gotten to a point where I really liked the way I was playing. I was really contributing in a lot of different areas. But things happen for a reason, without rhyme or reason.
"You have to make the best of it and move on."
The two-time Selke winner did just that in the summer, signing with the Blue Jackets on Aug. 23, just weeks before training camps opened. Peca had been in talks with the New York Rangers but those eventually broke down.
When Alexander Svitov decided to play in Russia, a spot in Columbus opened up, allowing new GM Scott Howson to make the deal.
"When Columbus expressed interest, I looked at the situation, the coaching staff, Scotty Howson, the direction that they are going in with Ken (Hitchcock) as a coach, a lot of things made it a good decision," says Peca. "I said in the off-season I was going to help someone regardless of where I played. Fortunately for me, it's with this organization on the upswing."
The 33-year-old played his first game since breaking the leg earlier this week when the Blue Jackets blanked the visiting Phoenix Coyotes 3-0. Playing alongside gritty youngsters Gilbert Brule and Dan Fritsche, he logged almost 13 minutes in his debut after missing the entire pre-season and Columbus's first two regular season games with back spasms and a groin injury.
His first shift was vintage Peca. He showed his underrated offensive skills by creating a nice scoring chance before hustling back to his own end to help thwart a Phoenix rush.
"He's one of those guys that just understands the game of hockey and how it should be played to win," says Columbus captain Adam Foote, a teammate of Peca's when Canada won gold at the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics. "He's got a lot of hockey sense and he's a natural leader. He brings a lot to the table.
"He's one of the best defensive forwards in the league but he also has a lot of offensive skill and can make things happen in the other end. I think it's a great pickup for us."
Peca is a welcome addition to a team with good core of young players that is improving in its own end thanks to Hitchcock's presence.
Hitchcock says that the staff hasn't defined a role for him because the philosophy is that everyone should contribute at both ends of the rink, though Peca will be expected to provide the leadership that comes with being a veteran and former captain.
He's just content to be playing NHL hockey again after 10 months away.
"In about the middle of April, even before the season ended, I was really eager to get back in the lineup," says Peca. "I really missed the game and wanted to get back in it. I know that I'm a better player now than I think I ever was in my career, mainly because I'm as fit as I've ever been and I feel great on the ice.
"More importantly, mentally, I feel so relaxed, so focused and so determined to be as good as I know I can be."