(HockeySTL)-- Defenseman Carl Gunnarsson has received the long-awaited medical clearance from doctors, Jeremy Rutherford of the St. Louis Post Dispatch reported on Monday. He is now able to participate fully in practices, as well as games.
Gunnarsson, who was acquired by the Blues this past offseason in a trade that sent defenseman Roman Polak to Toronto, joined the Blues in California Monday evening and was back on the ice with the team on Tuesday, according to Rutherford.
The 27-year-old defenseman traveled to Nashville to meet with a specialist on Monday in hopes of receiving the green light to participate fully with teammates. Gunnarsson has been limited in his skating since mid-September and had failed to receive clearance two previous times. The specialist, however, gave Gunnarsson the OK on Monday.
There is a strong possibility that Gunnarsson makes his debut in one of the three games on the Blues’ upcoming road trip, which begins on Thursday in Los Angeles. But that decision now lies in the hands of the coaching staff and the defenseman. However, Gunnarsson shouldn’t be far away from competing after finally removing the no-contact jersey.
“One of the good things about it is once he gets the grey sweater, then it won’t be very long because he has participated in everything we have done,” Hitchcock said at the beginning of the season.
Gunnarsson, before joining St. Louis, had spent the last five seasons with the Maple Leafs, who drafted the defenseman in the 7th round of the 2007 NHL Draft. He had accumulated 86 points (15 goals, 71 assists) in 304 games with Toronto before the Blues traded for him and a fourth-round pick at the June draft. One of the reasons Toronto was willing to part with the defenseman was the uncertainty surrounding his offseason surgery.
In late April, Gunnarsson had surgery to repair a hip flexor and early expectations were that he would be ready for the start of the season. But the timetable was an estimate and there was no telling how long the road to recovery would actually be.
“I look at it as a 4-5 month recovery,” Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock said when explaining why Gunnarsson was never considered to be behind schedule.
Gunnarsson’s return, whenever that might be, could have a significant impact on the team’s blue line. Hitchcock raved about the defenseman’s puck-moving ability in camp, and the coach says the team’s transition game is something that has been lacking in the first two games of the season.
But it remains to be seen whether or not Gunnarsson will be placed in a high-minute role immediately. The team’s plan in camp was to pair Gunnarsson with Alex Pietrangelo, whose partner has been Ian Cole in the first two games. That seems to remain the likely scenario.
Hitchcock could also place Gunnarsson with Kevin Shattenkirk on the second pairing, but Shattenkirk and Jay Bouwmeester have been impressive together to begin the season.
“I really like Bouwmeester with Shattenkirk; that has been a good pair, so we have to decide,” Hitchcock said at the end of training camp.
But Hitchcock said he would have no reservations pairing Gunnarsson with Shattenkirk.
“Shatty has been our best defenseman the first two games,” Hitchcock said. “He has been excellent. If this is the type of quality play, he can pretty much play with anyone and help them.”
What is certain is that Gunnarsson will play on one of the top-two pairings, whether it is with Pietrangelo or Shattenkirk. The Blues believe the Swedish defenseman is capable of having a big impact in such a role.
“He’s a top-four defenseman, so wherever he plays he’s a top-four guy,” Hitchcock said a few weeks ago. “He played the first half of last year with (Cody) Franson, which was the second pair, and he played the last 45-46 games first pair with Phaneuf and they had a big responsibility.
“He’s used to those types of minutes. He’s interesting because, if you look at the minutes, those are heavy minutes he got. He’s not a big guy, but he’s wire-y strong.”