Niagara Gazette

Pro Sports

September 21, 2011

What the heck happened to Hecht?

BUFFALO — If Jochen Hecht, the Sabres’ quiet, once unheralded two-way forward, won’t offer insight into his sharp decline, his coach will.

In 2007, when Hecht was an annual lock for about 20 goals, 50 points and gaudy rating, the German signed a four-year, $14.1 million contract. With Daniel Briere and Christ Drury gone, keeping Hecht became vital. On a team full of talented forwards, he was arguably its most dependable and versatile.

Not anymore.

Hecht, the longest-tenured Sabres at nine seasons, has mostly struggled since his new contract began, sandwiching one good season between two poor ones. In 136 total games in 2008-09 and 2010-11, the 34-year-old had only 24 goals, 56 points and minus-5 rating.

So what’s happened to Hecht, who was a model of consistency for so long?

“That’s a tough question,” Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said Tuesday following a session of training camp inside the First Niagara Center. “I think a little bit of the game has changed. When Jochen has had the success in the last couple years, a lot of times it’s been from being inside (near the net). Before that, there were some dynamics that worked with Jochen. He was playing for a period of time with (Briere) and J.P. (Dumont), which worked.

“I think sometimes when the dynamics change, you got to find something that fits. He’s been used sometimes in more of a defensive role. There’s been long periods where he wasn’t on the power play.”

Last week, Hecht, who’s nursing a minor undisclosed injury and could miss tonight’s preseason game in Montreal, shed little light on his struggles.

“It’s always been a little bit of up and down the last few years,” Hecht said. “But I got to put that behind me. The new season starts. We got a lot to look forward to this year. I’m happy to be a part of this year.”

How long Hecht remains a part of the Sabres is unknown. If he endures another rough campaign, it could be his last one here.

The Sabres, more than $3.5 million over the $64.3 million salary cap, have to get under by opening night. Hecht seems secure for now, however. Getting rid of him before the season-opening European trip would be cruel. The Sabres play two games in Germany, including an exhibition tilt Manheim, Hecht’s hometown.

“I guess there’ll have to be some decisions to make, but they’re out of my reach,” said Hecht, whose late-season concussion forced him to miss all but the final postseason contest. “I’m just going to be going to camp, play hard, be ready for the season.”

Hecht also helped convince German defenseman Christian Ehrhoff, a top free agent, to join the Sabres.

“He asked me about the city and the team, what kind of changes we’ve been through since the new ownership, stuff like that,” Hecht said. “He wants to know if his family’s going to be comfortable here, if I like it. I told him the suburbs are really nice. We’ve been here for almost 10 years now. We don’t regret coming here.”

Theoretically, it could be easier to trade Hecht during the season, when he’s owed less of his $3 million salary.

Naturally, any speculation will end if Hecht recaptures his old form, something Ruff thinks is possible.

“He’s right in that area,” Ruff said about Hecht’s past statistics. “Without power-play time, which may be limited, it may be tough to get to 20 (goals). But if you can get 15-plus, it puts him in a pretty good place.”

For now, Hecht’s penciled in at center, a spot he’s played over the years, including a prolonged stint late last season. In the past, he’s said he prefers playing the wing. Ruff, however, thinks Hecht skates better and plays more physically in the middle.

“I’m flexible,” Hecht said. “I’m at that point where I just want to play. If it’s center, if it’s wing, it’s fine. If I got to play, D, it’s good, too. I’m just excited to be here and do my part.”

Thanks to a wild offseason, Hecht’s never seen this much buzz around the Sabres. The team was ownerless and bankrupt when he arrived in 2002.

“I’ve never started the season with that kind of vibe, with people being that excited about it,” Hecht said. “It’s fun to be on this team. … We have a great group of guys here, some great additions, and it’s going to be exciting to start the season here in Buffalo.”

Notes: Joe Finley, the 27th overall pick by Washington in 2005, is in camp on a tryout. The 6-foot-8, 260-pound defenseman “might be the second-best big-man skater I’ve been around,” Ruff said. Finley, who’s battled injuries, has also been used at forward. … Winger Jason Pominville should play tonight, his first appearance since a skate sliced a tendon near his right ankle in April. Pominville has said he’s back to normal. … The Sabres can bring three goalies on their European trip, so it’s possible AHL veteran Drew MacIntyre, who started the exhibition opener Monday, will travel.

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