The weight is off Andrej Meszaros this season, and in more ways than one.
So it is, then, that the 22-year-old Slovak has settled in as a top-four mainstay on the Ottawa Senators’ blue-line brigade. Exactly what the organization had in mind, no doubt, when it expended a first-round draft pick on Meszaros in 2004.
But the road to this point has included its bumps along the way, especially during the 2006-07 season, when it might be suggested Meszaros fell victim to the dreaded “sophomore jinx.” It wasn’t quite that simple, though.
Two years ago, Meszaros made an impressive debut as a Senators rookie, racking up 10 goals to go with his 39 points. His plus-minus rating was a lofty plus-34, helped in great part by the presence of hulking blueliner Zdeno Chara.
“The first year, everything was too easy (for him),” Senators head coach John Paddock said about Meszaros. “He was the fifth or sixth defenceman ... for the first two-thirds or half of that season, he saw (the opposition’s) third or fourth line exclusively.
“We had Zee to take care of the first line of players.”
When Chara signed as a free agent with the Boston Bruins, the Senators looked at Meszaros to slide into the vacated top-four position. But without Chara, a fellow Slovak and mentor, Meszaros struggled during a season that saw his plus-minus plummet to minus-15.
Paddock admits now that the burden placed on Meszaros during his second season might have been too much, too soon.
“We had higher expectations because of that (rookie) season,” said Paddock. “But he didn’t have Zee to follow around off the ice, he didn’t have Zee to play important minutes and we were asking him to play important minutes.
“If you step back, he should have played better, but our expectations were probably too high.”
It also took about three months for the Senators to settle their defensive pairings. Now though, in his third season, Meszaros has found a comfort zone with veteran Wade Redden, and they’ve elevated their play accordingly.
“Everybody says the second year is tough, but I bounced back,” said Meszaros. “I learned from that and I worked hard in the summer.
“Now I try to be positive every time. If I see something going wrong, I ask the coaches what I should do or go watch the video.”
Meszaros also showed up about three pounds lighter this season, which he says has made an “amazing” difference.
“(The coaches) told me to lose a little weight. A few pounds, not much,” said Meszaros, who played at 220 last season but now tips the scales in the 217-pound range. “It’s helped me a lot. I feel quicker out there ... even if they hadn’t told me to, I would have tried to lose the weight.”
Redden agrees they’ve emerged as a stronger duo this season.
“We are better this year,” he said. “We’re staying within our limits, doing what we do best. We’re making the simple plays and being more aggressive at the same time, being hard on the puck and getting involved in the play.”
Added Meszaros: “Wade trusts me and I trust him now. For me, it’s about experience. Every year, I think it’s going to get better and better. I like to play with Wade and I learn lots from him.”
Paddock sees an obvious difference in his young blueliner, too.
“Mez has come back settled, knowing where he's going to play,” he said. “He’s going to play against probably the second-best line game in and game out, so he’s prepared for it. He’s more prepared physically.
“He’s going to be a real good defenceman for a long time in this league.”