Ed Note: This article was inspired by a short Twitter conversation between Matthew Coller of WGR and Chris Ostrander of Two In The Box.
All of the Sabres defensemen have at least one very obvious thing that they do very well. Christian Ehrhoff is the playmaker with a cannon shot. Mike Weber hits people. Mark Pysyk and Chad Ruhwedel are new enough that we're not really sure that they're great at yet. Tyler Myers is really tall.
But what of Andrej Sekera? He doesn't hit, he doesn't score goals, he doesn't have great size or speed, and he doesn't say anything in his post-game interviews. He just does everything pretty darn well, and that's ultimately his problem.
The things Sekera does well can be highlighted by comparing him to a recently departed defenseman, Robyn Regehr. Sekera is everything Regehr wasn't - a quick, puck-moving, fluid defenseman who wasn't very big and wouldn't fight or crush his opponents in the corners.
I'll point you towards this extremely thorough (and well worth a read) article from Michael Chan of NHL Whiteboard that delves deep in to Sekera's game, and talks about how he's part of a new breed of NHL defenseman that thrives more on getting the puck out of their zone quickly rather than size and grit. (Note: this snippet is edited here for space, but you really should take the time to read the whole thing.)
I came across an interesting article in Hockey Prospectus about an introduction to "zone exits" - a new stat that is being tracked by bloggers in order to learn more and guage which teams and players are successful at breakouts. The data and findings are very preliminary, the sample size is small at about 200 total games, but I was surprised to see Sekera's name again amongst the leaders in zone exit success percentage.
Side note: in my opinion, one of the most interesting tidbits from the article was a quote from Coyotes' coach Dave Tippett:
I'll give you an example. We had a player that was supposed to be a great, shutdown defenseman. He was supposedly the be-all, end-all of defensemen. But when you did a 10-game analysis of him, you found out he was defending all the time because he can't move the puck. Then we had another guy, who supposedly couldn't defend a lick. Well, he was defending only 20 percent of the time because he's making good plays out of our end. He may not be the strongest defender, but he's only doing it 20 percent of the time. So the equation works out better the other way. I ended up trading the other defenseman."
The first thing in watching Sekera on the ice is that he is a terrific, and very mobile, skater. The most notable aspect of his skating is that his pivots and turns are buttery smooth, which is probably more important for defensemen than straightaway speed.
Sekera handles defensive coverage responsibilities and forechecking pressure with his head up and is always looking to advance the puck as soon as he gets it (preferably for a pass), but he isn't averse to chipping it out. His passing skills aren't zipped right on the tape like a guy like Ryan Whitney, but his breakout attempts to forwards are receivable enough and executed quickly enough to allow them to be received. Sekera maintains a sense of calmness in the defensive zone; even with oncoming pressure, he keeps his head up and feet moving, and most importantly, his brain going. The ability to handle the puck with his head up, and use his agility to alter passing angles and options, allows Sekera to be a dependable breakout option and a key part in reducing the time spent in the Sabres' zone.
To sum that up: Sekera's best skills are not what you think of when you think of a classic NHL defenseman - he's not a big bruiser who crushes opponents and clears the crease. However, his best skills exemplify a new breed of blueliner - one that uses quickness, awareness, and a decent amount of playmaking ability to get the puck out of their own zone quickly and efficiently, much like younger players like Mark Pysyk and Chad Ruhwedel seem to do.
So, the next time your friend badmouths Sekera just because he doesn't excel in any of the memorable skills (scoring, speed, size, hitting) make sure you tell them the tale of a fluid defenseman who cleared his zone with quickness and smarts, and turned out to be one of the more valuable members of his team because of it.