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Opinion

The Center-al Issue

The Buffalo Sabres have a lack of centers throughout their organization. It’s a problem that has plagued the organization since the departure of Co-Captains Danny Briere and Chris Drury, both of whom were centers, after the 2006-07 season.

Not to belabor a point, but that summer stunk on several different levels for Sabres fans. The void left by the duo has never been filled, although Darcy Regier has given several players the opportunity to step up.

The initial premise was that Tim Connolly (you know — the guy we traded Michael Peca for) could be a top-flight center in the NHL, and with time would develop into the #1 center the team has longed for. However, he has so far failed to near those expectations.

Plan B, so to speak, was Derek Roy. While Roy has proven that he can produce, he isn’t “top-line” material on most playoff teams. He is a very solid #2 center, but the lack of a #1 center is still an issue that haunts the club.

Many stop-gaps have been tried as well. Dominic Moore was brought in at the ’08-09 trade deadline and played center on the 3rd line, but was unable to crack a spot in the “Top 6” and left via free agency after the season. Paul Gaustad brings great size to the position and has evolved into one of the best faceoff men in the league, but his offensive game leaves much to be desired.

Then, there were the converted wingers. Clarke MacArthur tried center for awhile, but all it earned him was a seat in the press box and an eventual trade to Atlanta. The on-going Jochen Hecht experiment hasn’t fared much better. In the ’08-09 season, Hecht finished with 12 goals and just 27 points, and was a -9 — the only minus season of his career.

Now, the Sabres have lost Derek Roy for the season, and Tim Connolly has missed some time dealing with injuries. That leaves Rob Niedermayer, Luke Adam, Cody McCormick and Jochen Hecht as the Sabres with experience at the the center position — and guess who earned the job?

Center is a position in which Hecht has struggled mightily. Statistics and numbers are one thing, but the German veteran has admitted to being uncomfortable playing the position. I like Lindy Ruff, but why on Earth would you go back to this? Ruff is a good coach and deserves to stay on as the Sabres’ bench boss, but sometimes I wonder what he’s doing.

Hecht has been a pretty consistent player at the NHL level for most of his career. He generally scores between 40-50 points and hovers somewhere around 20 goals. He is a very palatable auxiliary player, especially considering his defensive play and leadership skills.

He’s never been an offensive powerhouse but what he lacks in his offensive games, he makes up for with strong back checking and a well-rounded two-way game.

The issue is that when Hecht has a down year, he really has a down year — his numbers, defensive play and work ethic all plummet.

Although he’s denied it, signs of mental fatigue and frustration are present. Looking at the sky, shaking his head, lazy back-checks, missed coverages, trying the extra pass — Hecht is saying the right things to the press, but that appears to be it, just words.

This has been going on all season, so why is he now also playing a position he doesn’t like? Hecht excels when he can bull his way through the corners and get the puck to his teammates. He scores when he gives his teammates space and allows them to create plays for him, or by shooting from unexpected angles.

He can be useful when he is a positionally sound, defensive winger who provides occasionally chips in on the scoresheet. None of that is happening this season, and it definitely won’t happen if he continues to play center.

Hecht is currently on an eerily similar pace to his 2008-09 campaign. He is on par to record 9 goals and 29 points, and finish a -10 for the season. Compared with a 12g 27p, -9 in a season the Sabres missed the playoffs. You can see why fans are a bit nervous. Hecht is not the only Sabre struggling, but given his responsibility as a top six forward, the microscope is on him, and rightfully so.

Hecht has one year remaining on his contract with the Sabres, and with the team currently on the verge of falling out of the playoff race, we could see his eight-year stay in Buffalo end come the trade deadline . If shopped around, he could garner some interest and the Sabres have a plethora of talented left wingers in the system. Should Hecht stay in Buffalo it should almost certainly not be up the middle.

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