Now nearing the finish line of a long recovery from abdominal surgery, St. Louis Blues all-star defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk can’t wait to be back in the lineup.
He eagerly skated again Thursday during an optional practice that saw him continue to push and test himself to a fuller degree, but won’t be fully cleared unless he makes it through a full-contact practice Friday with the full squad.
“Tomorrow is a big day, a big benchmark to see where I am,” Shattenkirk said. “That’s the plan and has been all week, to feel it out tomorrow and go from there.”
If he meets all the standards, Shattenkirk’s 25-game injury drought that began the first week of February will finally come to an end Saturday against Columbus at Scottrade Center. The return should aid a Blues team fighting not only for the Central Division title but first place overall in the NHL with a 46-21-7 record and 99 points.
“It hasn’t been overly painful,” said Shattenkirk, who underwent surgery Feb. 5 in Philadelphia to repair tears in his abdominal muscle and groin. “The best part about this injury is that it’s been an active recovery, so I haven’t had to sit around for weeks at a time and then just try to go again. A couple hours after the surgery I was moving around and they want you to keep those muscles active.
“There’s moments where it’s been more frustrating than painful, where you feel good walking around during the day and think you could play that night, then you go out on the ice and skate and it’s not there. That was the frustrating part, but that’s where the trainers come in and tell you to be patient and it will be fine.”
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock is optimistic about Shattenkirk’s chances of playing on Saturday.
“He’s passed all the tests,” Hitchcock said. “We gave him a very aggressive cardio test yesterday that he passed, so he’s gotten through the conditioning side of things. Now it’s full-contact and full absorption of a full practice tomorrow. If that’s the test he passes then we expect him to play Saturday, but he’s got to pass that test tomorrow.”
Shattenkirk was one of the league’s top offensive defensemen at the time he was injured Feb. 1. Shattenkirk had eight goals and 40 points through 49 games and the Blues have missed him as an offensive catalyst, particularly on the power play.
The Blues will be watching Shattenkirk closely Friday before clearing his return. Hitchcock said defenseman Carl Gunnarsson, who has missed with an upper-body injury, is also close to returning.
“He’s going to get checked hard, he’s going to get forechecked hard,” Hitchcock said of Shattenkirk. “He’s going to have to do some battle drills in team situations. If he gets to that next phase, then that’s the final phase and he should be ready to go.”
The Blues were 14-8-3 in Shattenkirk’s absence.
“He’s a guy that with the type of personality that he has, he bring everybody together,” Blues goalie Brian Elliott said. “He’s always got a joke or two and has got the right things to say at the right moment. He truly is a leader on our team. We call him ‘DJ ShattDeuces’ because he gets the music going before the game, too. There’s a lot to be said for stuff like that.”’
The Blues have six of their final eight games at home over a 15-day span. Shattenkirk hopes to get up to speed as quickly as possible and Hitchcock has talked about using seven defensemen as a way to help ease Shattenkirk back into the lineup while spreading the shifts out among the unit.
“I’ll be the first one to tell you I’m not going to be playing 24 minutes like I was before,” said Shattenkirk, who hopes to gain some rhythm and consistency to his game while also rebuilding his game-level conditioning. “I’m not there, yet, that’s hard to do especially at this point in the season. I’m going to have to build up to that and hopefully get there a couple games before playoffs.
“It’s going to take me a couple games for sure to get back to speed. You can’t keep your stamina and you conditioning up for games and on the ice without skating. You c an do all the bike riding you want but it’s not the same. It’s time to start pushing it there and get back to game shape.”
Shattenkirk said he had some scares at various points during the rehab when scar tissue would release, causing pain.
“It’s part of the process, so now it’s almost (like) when it happens I’m used to it,” he said. “I know it’s a good thing. It still scares you a little bit, but you seem to recover a lot quicker from it rather than having to take a day to let it settle down.”
Is there any discomfort with hockey’s twists and turns and shooting the puck, or pushing off hard when skating?
“It’s been good,” Shattenkirk said. “It’s progressed a lot over probably the last 10 days or so. I’ve started to feel that power coming back and coming out of turns and being able to accelerate, have a couple quick strides out of it. That’s been the one area that initially was just not there and now it feels better and better every day.”
Shattenkirk was able to talk to Tampa Bay’s Matt Carle, who recently returned after missing two months with a similar injury.
“A lot of the things and the setbacks that happened to me, happened to him,” Shattenkirk said. “Just to know that he was back and playing, it keeps you confident throughout the process knowing it’s all part of it.”