Andrej Sekera’s surprising season

When the Hurricanes acquired Andrej Sekera from the Buffalo Sabres, it was met with mixed to negative reactions. Sekera wasn't considered a "top four defenseman" by many and most thought that he wasn't worth a roster player and a second round pick. It's been almost seven months since that trade happened and Sekera actually looks like he is worth way more than what the Hurricanes gave up for him. He has played 23-25 minutes a night alongside Justin Faulk on the team's first defense pairing and is currently 14th among NHL defensemen in points with 28 in 51 games.

Those who had watched Sekera and did their research on him knew that the Hurricanes were getting a solid, undervalued player but I don't think anyone saw him being this good. The guy who some people wrote off as "another McBain" has really been more like Joni Pitkanen when he was in his prime. The Canes have used Sekera in all situations, given him massive responsibilities at even strength and he has done a fine job with them. He has been a great compliment to Justin Faulk as another "do-it-all" defenseman for the first pairing and his offensive upside has really blossomed this year. 

Where is this all coming from, though? Sekera's always been a good, mobile defenseman but even in his Buffalo days, he struggled when being forced into a shutdown role. Carolina isn't exactly using him as a "shutdown" player, but he plays the toughs every night and is tasked with handling a lot of minutes on a nightly basis. He struggled mightily in this role with the Sabres last year, so what exactly has made him so successful with the Hurricanes? A big part of it relates to his usage and who the Hurricanes have paired him with.

Sekera's career track record is pretty interesting from a numbers standpoint. He's never been a possession monster, but his teams have typically done a good job of controlling territorial play over the years when he was on the ice. The one exception was last season with the Sabres where he posted a brutal Corsi Rel. of -9.0 where Buffalo controlled only 43.3% of the unblocked 5v5 shot attempts while he was out there. This year, the Hurricanes are posting a Corsi% above 50% when Sekera is on the ice and that is doubly impressive when you take into consideration that he is playing against other teams top lines every night

Buffalo used him in a similar role at even strength last year and it's interesting to look at how much his performance has improved since then.

Sekera's ability to control possession & territorial play absolutely cratered last season only to shoot back up again this year. As most know, Buffalo has been one of the worst teams in the league in this regard for the last few years and while Carolina isn't a great team at even strength, they are pretty far ahead above Buffalo and moving to a superior team can do wonders for a player's underlying numbers. However, something that's interesting is that Buffalo was getting outshot at a higher rate with Sekera on the ice last year than they were while he was on the bench, so he definitely had some issues. Part of this could be related to who he was playing with rather than Sekera himself, though. 

One of the most misleading things about shot-based statistics is that it holds every player on the ice responsible for events that they may have not had a role in. Sekera had a bad season, but it's pretty obvious that he was nowhere near as bad as his underlying numbers indicate. How Buffalo was using him didn't exactly help matters either. I mentioned earlier that they were using him in a shutdown role and a good chunk of those minutes came playing alongside Robyn Regehr. He also played a lot of minutes with Regehr in the season prior, when he was posting better numbers, but even then these two did not mix at all. At least when it came to keeping the puck out of their own zone.

Among his defense partners in Buffalo, Regehr, Butler, Weber and Lydman were the ones who Sekera struggled to find any chemistry with and he spent about 1/3 of his ice-time playing with Regehr last season, which sheds some light on his terrible underlying numbers. Compare that to his numbers with Christian Ehrhoff, his other most common defense partner that year, and you'll notice a big improvement. Sekera also played a lot of minutes alongside Mike Weber and that was another pairing that got lit up at even strength.

Another thing to note is that the Sabres used Sekera with quite a few defense partners throughout the year. In Carolina, he has played about 90% of his 5v5 ice-time alongside Justin Faulk and two compliment each other well. Both are very good skaters, can handle the puck well and are very responsible in their own end to boot. Sekera's generally had success when he was used with a defense partner who can skate well and quickly move the play out of his own zone (Myers, Ehrhoff, Montator, Leopold) instead of a shutdown defenseman whose game is more suited for delivering hits and blocking shots (Regehr, Weber).

Faulk & Sekera's similar skill-sets makes them a lot more suitable for a tough-minute role than some think. Neither are the most intimidating players, but they do a little of everything well and are very good at keeping other team's top lines in check because of it. Both are good skaters and can cover a lot of ground in their own end, which makes closing gaps on forwards a lot easier. They are also very good with their sticks and can quickly make good plays out of their own zone to get the puck moving in the right direction. Even when they get beat or turn the puck over, they are quick enough to get back into the play and cover up for their mistakes, which are bound to happen with how often they handle the puck. The Canes lacked a good compliment to Faulk on their shutdown pair last season and they managed to find that in Sekera, although not many saw it coming.

With that being said, Sekera has shown in the past that he can be a capable defender when he is used with the right partner. What is really surprising is his offense. As good of a skater as he is, it never translated to him getting many points in Buffalo, as he has already topped his career high (29) in only 51 games this year and looks like he is improving every night. Carolina hasn't had a defenseman put up these kind of numbers since 2009-10 when Joni Pitkanen recorded 46 points in 71 games. Sekera is on pace for something around that. 

Sekera's always shown the ability to be a decent point-producer. It's pretty obvious when you watch him play that he has good instincts in the offensive zone and he is too good of a skater to not at least be useful on the power play. Sekera is also an excellent puck-handler and his patience has been a great addition to the Canes power play. He is great at holding up at the line and waiting for a shooting lane or a screen to develop from the point before trying to get the puck on net, which is part of the reason why he is having a career season.

Sekera was also a point-per-game player in the OHL (and a teammate of former Hurricane Bobby Sanguinetti) so it's not like he hasn't been able to produce before. Even during his time with the Sabres, Sekera was decent on the power play when he got the opportunity to do so.

  PP TOI/G Def Rk PPP/60 SF/60
2008-09  1:32 4 2.29 44.57
2009-10  1:31 4 0.81 52.62
2010-11  2:05 3 2.67 51.75
2011-12  0:51 5 0.99 51.33
2012-13  1:03 5 0 38.33
2013-14  2:34 3 4.41 56.38

Prior to joining the Hurricanes, Sekera's best year on the power play was 2010-11 and that was when Buffalo used him on their first unit. After that, he was utilized on the power play less and didn't record many points there as a result. With Ehrhoff and Myers, there likely wasn't enough room for him on the first unit, so it's understandable why he wasn't used much on the power play from 2010-11 onward. He is also coming off a year where he did basically nothing on the man advantage in limited minutes, partially due to a garbage on-ice shooting percentage. This year, Sekera was a regular on the Canes first power play unit until the team traded for John-Michael Liles and he has certainly made the most of it. Carolina produces a lot of shots when he is on the ice and he's seen a reward for it with eight power play points. 

As a team, Hurricanes have been very inconsistent his year but Sekera has been a huge bright spot and having him under contract for another year at less than $3 mil. is going to be huge next year. When the Canes acquired him, the hope was that he could be a suitable top-four defenseman and he is proving to be that and so much more.

Stats courtesy of Extra Skater, Behind the Net & Hockey Analysis