ASIDE FROM smearing opposing forwards, one of the things Andrej Meszaros likes to do most is travel.
His general practice after hockey seasons recently has been to go back to his native Slovakia for a spell before heading out to sightsee. He has hit most of the biggies in Europe, including a several-hour wait to see the Mona Lisa.
So when Meszaros was acquired by the Flyers last summer, checking out the Liberty Bell had to go immediately to the top of his itinerary, right? Not so fast, cheesesteak breath.
"I was just focusing on the season, because I wanted to bounce back," said Meszaros, a 6-year veteran who still is only 25. "I just tried to rest and stay at home as much as I could. I'm sure I'll have time after the season to check out the city and stuff like that. The city will always be there. The most important thing is hockey."
Meszaros needed to put the extracurriculars in neutral as he tried to straighten out a career that suddenly had become as tilted as the Leaning Tower of Pisa. After 3 years in Ottawa that included a first-team all-rookie selection in 2006 and a run to the Stanley Cup finals the following season, the former first-round pick was dealt to Tampa Bay.
The two seasons in Tampa were disappointing for Meszaros and disastrous for the Lightning. The defenseman hit the score sheet less and was on the ice for more goals against. Injury was a big part of the problem, as was the pressure to justify a lavish, 6-year, $24 million contract the Lightning handed out when it acquired him.
Matt Carle, who has been paired with Meszaros recently, was also briefly a teammate of his in Tampa.
"I think it was the kind of thing where you just need a change of scenery," Carle said. "That kind of happened to me when I came here. He's been a rock for us all season long, been very consistent. He's a solid d-man, a good two-way guy. He's physical and can block some shots. He's a complete guy that you need on your team to be successful."
Meszaros had eight goals and 24 assists this season, his best numbers since his rookie year and only one point fewer than he had in two seasons in Tampa. He and Carle tied for the Flyers' lead with a plus-30. Meszaros was a lousy minus-18 in two seasons with the Lightning. In Saturday's Atlantic Division-clinching win over the Islanders, Meszaros had two goals and two assists to set a career high for most points in a game.
"What a great year he had," Flyers coach Peter Laviolette said. "You look at how strong he is and how versatile he is and what he was able to do for our club . . . to come in and have a positive impact five-on-five, power play, penalty kill. [He was] a welcome addition to this locker room as a person. He was really a terrific, terrific pickup by [general manager] Paul Holmgren."
Now that the regular season has been put to bed, the numbers don't mean much. Experience and toughness are what's needed from the Flyers' defensemen, particularly with the uncertain status of Chris Pronger, and Meszaros has both.
For experience, just look at the more than 20 minutes he averaged during Ottawa's run to the Stanley Cup finals in 2007. For toughness, just look at the scars on his face that resemble a European road map.
The biggest one came on a Friday in January 2009 when a deflected puck hit him square on the chops and needed 65 stitches to close. He was in the lineup that Sunday. A short time later, he injured the labrum in his left shoulder, which was more damaging, lingered longer and stunted his ice time.
"For him to be effective," Carle said, "he's got to be a physical player."
When the season is over, Meszaros again will become Magellan with a hockey stick. After he explores Philadelphia, he's going out West to check out the Grand Canyon and Hoover Dam. Until that time, though, he is focused on helping the Flyers surpass last year's thrilling postseason run.