Return sees Peca open up

DEREK VAN DIEST -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:40 AM ET

His season in Edmonton was trying.

He arrived two years ago, fresh of the lockout, under enormous fanfare and with high expectations.

At first Michael Peca didn't live up to those expectations. He didn't come close.

But as the season wore on, Peca got better, and in the end, was one of the reasons the Oilers were able to make it to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final.

"It was almost going from the not-so-good, to the real good," said Peca who's now with the Columbus Blue Jackets. "Coming in, I just denied to myself that I was ready to play; I wasn't ready to play.

"I enjoyed the lockout and I didn't think there would be a season. Then I had a month to try and scramble myself back in shape. Then dealing with the trade and trying to move my family here, there was a lot of things I dealt with and I just wasn't ready to play. As much as I denied to myself saying I was, I just wasn't."

The Oilers acquired Peca in one of two blockbuster moves they made that summer coming out of the lockout. He, along with Chris Pronger, was being counted on to turn the franchise around. Peca, however, got off to a slow start and was the brunt of criticism because of it. He also came under the scrutiny of head coach Craig MacTavish.

"I think early on they wanted me to play a role similar to what I am playing here, playing on the top two lines," Peca said. "But it became a case where I sat out for a year and I'm not physically ready to play at the level I want to. The tough position to put MacT in was that he'd ask me where I thought my game was and I'd say that I was fine and that I felt good, where the realistic answer should have been that I should have been trying to play my way into shape at the start of the season. If I'd have been a little bit more honest with him and myself early, we probably could have defused a lot of things early in that season. As it went on, tension grew because he was trying to figure me out and I was having problems with the way he was trying to figure me out. At the end of the day, however, we were in it together and my game came around and so did his belief in me."

Eventually Peca lived up to expecations. And through the playoffs was one of the club's best players. Peca, 33, finished the regular season with nine goals and 14 assists in 71 games. In the playoffs, he had six goals and five assists in 24 games to go along with his outstanding defensive play.

"I think (MacTavish) used me perfectly through the last quarter of the season and through the playoffs," Peca said. "I still think he's one of the most brilliant coaches that I've ever played for. He knows the game inside, out."

Despite making it to the final it was well known the chances of Peca returning to Edmonton the following year were slim. The unrestricted free agent wanted to play for his hometown Maple Leafs.

Peca had his own frustrations in T.O., breaking his leg in December which brought a premature end to his season.

"Everything happens for a reason, I believe," he said. "I had an opportunity to play in Toronto which is something that I've always wanted to do ... Unfortunately, I broke my leg and I don't think they had the confidence in me to rebound and play at a high level again. So I had to find another place to play ...

"But I'm the type of guy that holds on to good memories. When things don't go my way, which they obviously did for a large part of that season in Edmonton, I take what I can learn from it. Certainly the season ended on a very high note through the last 30 games or so and through the playoffs. I really enjoyed that and obviously those are memories you keep for a lifetime."


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