Players like Rostislav Klesla have a unique fan base. Much like Marc Savard and the Boston Bruins, his career ended with a team other than the one it began with; as a result, two distinct fan bases feel a sense of proprietary ownership of him.
He began his NHL career as the first player ever drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets, being picked up by the fledgling team fourth overall at the 2000 NHL Entry Draft in Calgary, Alberta. The Czech native would skate out with the new team in only eight games that first season, but ultimately represented the Blue Jackets for an entire decade before moving to Phoenix.
He was moved in an emotional trade for the CBJ community. In exchange for ‘Yotes young forward Scottie Upshall and even younger blue liner Sami Lepisto, Klesla joined teammate Danny Byers in the move to the desert. The team was looking to build youth and scoring ability, so the trade was a necessary one, but Klesla would be the last remaining player from the founding Blue Jackets roster to depart from the team.
Once Klesla arrived in Arizona, though, it appeared he would be there for a while. He skated in sixteen regular season games and four playoff match-ups with the Coyotes, then made an all-star showing in 2011-2012 by providing three goals and three assists to supplement his already steady at-home presence. He then followed that season up with two goals and six assists in the lockout-shortened 2012-2013 season, proving that sometimes, players can stay effective with age.
This was no shock to those who had followed Klesla through his player development. As far back as 1997, Klesla was firing the puck into the back of his opponents’ nets with alarming frequency for a non-forward; during his season with the OHL’s Brampton Battalion, the Czech youngster recorded sixteen goals and twenty-nine assists. In an article posted by AZ Central back in 2012, the blue liner admitted that he still loved the offensive aspect of the game. He lamented his shift to stay-at-home defensive play when representing Columbus, unable to contain his excitement at the thought of scoring goals.
His career came to an end with Arizona not long after that final season, though.
During a pre-season matchup against the L.A. Kings on September 15, 2013, Klesla was hit in the back of the head during a check by Kings defenseman Jordan Nolan. Fellow players, fans, and even reporters were unsure as to what had happened, but when Klesla didn’t get back up off the ice, it became clear that things weren’t looking good.
— Arizona Coyotes (@ArizonaCoyotes) September 16, 2013
The team knew that this would leave a hole in the lineup if he stayed on the team. As one of the team’s top defenseman in 2012, both during the regular season and the playoff run, Coach Dave Tippett realized that his blue line would face some problems if Klesla was suited up for most games. He came with a high enough cap hit that it would impact the team, but even once recovered from what eventually would be ruled a neck injury, Rusty Klesla wasn’t going to ever be the player he had been before.
Subsequently, Klesla found himself coming off the injury to be placed on waivers and moved down to the team’s AHL affiliate, the Portland Pirates. He was recalled by the team in December of 2013, but was only used as an extra defenseman. He would never be played as a top line defenseman in the NHL again.
Klesla’s Departure from the NHL
For the second time in his career, Rusty Klesla found himself being traded away by a team who didn’t want to do so. The first time, it was to bring some offense to an organization that was looking for more scoring opportunities; this time, it was due to the team’s need to replace the aging, injured defender for someone who could score. The team was sitting precariously close to making the playoffs, and Klesla was unable to do much to assist in this. He had become a strong, positive member of the Coyotes’ community, but it was time for the team to look at him as a potential trading piece.
They finally found a deal that could be made involving him, and the 31-year-old league vet was moved to the Washington Capitals on March 4, 2013, alongside Chris Brown and a fourth round 2015 draft pick. The Coyotes picked up Martin Erat, who was no longer the twenty-goal scorer he had once been but a stellar playmaker still, and prospect John Mitchell.
Klesla wasn’t in Washington for long, though. Another team looking to push for a playoff spot, the Capitals turned around just one day after the trade with Arizona, sending Klesla to Buffalo in exchange for Jaroslav Halak.
Citing his injury and the rapid succession of trades as his reasoning, Rusty Klesla left the NHL three days later. He announced that he would not report to Buffalo, and instead chose to sit out the remainder of the season.
Things aren’t grim for the blue liner, though. He seems to be quite happily sailing back to the Czech Republic, where he has signed a two-year contract with HC Oceláři Třinec for a second time. He first played with the Hockey Club back during the 2004-2005 season, when the CBA-driven lockout caused the NHL to cancel the season entirely, so it’s likely that he’ll be welcomed back with smiles.
We can only wish the guy good luck, and hope Czech hockey treats him well.