BUFFALO – Thirty-one days ago, it appeared Jochen Hecht’s long career here could be ending. In his fifth game as interim coach, Ron Rolston scratched the versatile forward, the first benching of his 10-season Sabres career. Rolston had already slashed the German’s minutes dramatically.
Hecht, a favorite of former coach Lindy Ruff, was seething.
But Rolston complimented Hecht’s play following the scratch, saying the German was only benched so the Sabres could add some toughness.
Hecht has played all 14 games since then. The 35-year-old enjoyed his best game this season on Friday, setting up the game-winning goal before scoring late in the Sabres’ 4-2 win over Ottawa.
Centering Patrick Kaleta and John Scott in Sunday’s 3-2 shootout win over the New Jersey Devils, Hecht created Kaleta’s first goal this season, feeding the winger in front of goalie Martin Brodeur 4:22 into the game.
“He was one of the guys that was just continuing to show consistency, even when he was getting less minutes,” Rolston said about Hecht on Sunday morning inside the First Niagara Center. “ … He put himself in that position where he just kept coming. Whatever position we put he played consistent, practiced consistent. We want that as a message. We want guys to follow those players.”
Rolston has done what Ruff refused to: put Hecht in a third- or fourth-line role. Much to the dismay of some fans, Ruff kept playing Hecht big minutes earlier this season. Hecht even skated more than star Thomas Vanek a couple of times.
These days, Hecht plays about 10 to 15 minutes each game as a center or winger and kills penalties. Rolston still occasionally bumps him up to a top line, too.
“To his credit, he just goes wherever and does his job wherever he’s put,” Rolston said. “He’s been up on the first line. He’s been on our checking lines. … He’s a player that’s really flexible. He adapts to any situation. He’s a professional. He’ll give you anything he’s got in any role.”
Hecht said he only chatted with assistant coaches Kevyn Adams and James Patrick about his benching, never Rolston.
“Nobody’s happy to sit,” Hecht said. “Nobody wants to be a healthy scratch. If somebody’s not mad, then he’s got a problem.”
With Hecht contributing in his new role, it’s fair to wonder if the Sabres could re-sign him again this offseason. After battling concussions last season, Hecht signed a one-year deal in January.
Hecht said he wants to play next season.
The Sabres are transitioning and getting younger, though. They dealt three notable veterans before Wednesday’s trade deadline, including former captain Jason Pominville.
Hecht thought he might go, too.
“Yeah, there were some rumors,” Hecht said. “You’re always concerned about it, especially when you have a family. There’s nothing you can do.”
If he keeps playing well, the Sabres’ longest-tenured player could be back.
Vanek (muscle strain) missed his sixth straight game. He stayed off the ice Sunday but is expected to skate today. Rolston believes Vanek might be able to return Tuesday in Winnipeg.