It may come as somewhat of a surprise to see one of the names atop the Blue Jackets points leaders. Of course Rick Nash is there with the three helpers he dished out last night in Vancouver, but there’s a name above that: Rostislav Klesla. “Rusty”, as he is affectionately known by teammates and fans alike, has accumulated two goals and one assist for three points in the Jackets’s first two games. It may be just a little early to hand him the Art Ross, but his performance so far has been noteworthy.
Klesla’s tenure with the Blue Jackets has been full of ups and downs. The Blue Jackets first ever draft pick, selected fourth overall in the 2000 Entry Draft, had massive expectations. Klesla was in the lineup for the Jackets inaugural game October 7, 2000 against Chicago. He played in the Jackets first eight games before being sent back down to Brampton to play out the rest of the junior season. In his eight games in that inaugural season Rusty netted himself two goals. It was certainly an admirable performance for the young Czech defender, albeit a shortsighted decision from team management.
The learning curve for a young defenseman is surpassed only by the learning curve for a goaltender. Physically, the NHL game is light years ahead of Major Juniors. It’s the difference between men on professional workout regimens and teenagers. The speed of the NHL game is also incredibly difficult for most defenders to get used to. A single misread, a single mistake often leads to a youngster digging the puck out of his own net. While the damage done on the scoreboard is one thing, the affliction to a player’s confidence may be the most pressing issue. Youngsters start to question their skill set, shying away from the play that garnered them the attention to land on an NHL roster.
Forgoing a year in Syracuse, where he could have continued to develop, Klesla found himself in the Blue Jackets lineup for the 2001-2002 season. On an awful team, Rusty still had a very productive rookie season going 8-8-16 in 75 games. He showed a bit of the mean streak scouts praised with 74 penalty minutes on the season and garnered All-Rookie Team honors. There appeared to be a very promising future for 6’3” 220 pound defender.
Fast forward to 2008-2009, Klesla, played in only 34 regular season games. For the third time in his eight-year career, Rusty had missed 30 or more games due to injury. In 410 career games, he had amassed 35-71-106 and a career minus 53 rating. He appeared to have plateaued, at least points-wise, in 2006-2007. Many wanted to label Klesla a bust, especially with the three players selected before him; Rick DiPietro, Dany Heatley and Marian Gaborik all as established NHL stars (in DiPietro’s case he’s paid like one).
Then came the Blue Jackets first ever playoff experience: a four-game sweep at the hands of the Detroit Red Wings. Yet, even with an overall dismal playoff performance, there was much taken away to be optimistic about. One of those reasons for optimism, perhaps the biggest, was the play of Klesla. While his postseason numbers do not really jump off the stat sheet, it was his incredible play that netted him praise from Blue Jackets management. On a team that was out scored 18 to 7 in the series, Rusty had an even rating, and averaged over 21 minutes of ice-time a night. With Mike Commodore and Jan Hejda’s sub par performances, Klesla emerged as the shutdown defenseman for the Jackets in the series.
The off-season saw a slew of Jackets handed long-term contracts to stay with the budding franchise. The Rick Nash deal was a “gimme” of sorts because there was no way Scott Howson would let the face of the franchise test free agent waters in 2010. That was followed by surprising extensions for Derick Brassard, a four-year deal for a player with 48 NHL games under his belt, and Antoine Vermette, a five-year deal for a deadline acquisition. While neither of those extensions was met with much animosity by fans or players, there was one notable exclusion. The career leader in games played in a Union Blue sweater, the first ever draft pick, the top playoff performer, was set to be a free agent come Summer 2010. That changed in a hurry.
In front of a packed Nationwide Arena, the opening night crowd eagerly anticipating the drop of the puck on the new season, the Blue Jackets announced a new four-year contract extension for Klesla. The deal will pay him $11.9 million over those four-years. Rusty responded by scoring the game winning goal, redemption for a miscommunication on the penalty kill that led to the Minnesota tying the game up. In a post game interview with George Matthews and Bob McElligott, a comment was made about Rusty perhaps trying to play more of a two-way game. Klesla seemed almost taken aback and responded that he has always thought of himself as a two-way defenseman. The shot has always been there, for Klesla. The offensive skills have always been there. The confidence however, has not always been there. For Klesla it’s just a question transferring his skills to the NHL game and staying confident in his play.
At least through two games, Rusty is having no problems with that.