(HockeySTL)-- New Blues defenseman, Carl Gunnarsson, has seen positive developments from his recent conditioning stints, and is now on pace to return by the end of the preseason.
Gunnarsson, who was acquired by the Blues in the offseason, spent the entire summer rehabbing from an offseason surgery to repair a hip flexor. The defenseman labored through the last two seasons with the injury before ultimately deciding surgery was necessary.
"(Surgery) was something I had to get done," Gunnarsson told Lou Korac of NHL.com. "(The Maple Leafs) didn't make the playoffs, so I thought it was going to be a long summer. Recovery time is still long, but if there's a good time to do it, now was the time.”
Gunnarsson, 27, underwent the surgery in May, but has been progressing at a slower rate than expected, forcing him to be a limited participant in the early days of training camp.
“Gunnarsson is going to kind of be in-between full participant and three-quarter participant,” said head coach Ken Hitchcock when camp opened last Friday. “So, ‘Gunny’ is going to skate with the training staff and then he is going to join us for the first phase of the session. He’ll take 45 minutes of conditioning and then about 40 minutes with us (on the ice).”
For the past couple of weeks, Gunnarsson has been skating with trainer Ray Barile before his teammates take the ice. He has also been active in off-ice conditioning. But since camp opened, Gunnarsson has also been actively participating with teammates in on-ice drills.
“He has really progressed nicely,” Hitchcock said when he was asked about the change in Gunnarsson’s workout. “He skated 45 minutes and then he skated 30 minutes with us. That’s his program for this whole week.”
As of last week, the Blues didn’t expect to have the defenseman back prior to the start of the season. It seemed as though it was even a possibility that he would not be ready for the team’s opener on Oct. 9. But over the past few days, Gunnarsson’s rehab has taken a positive turn and the defenseman could be ready in time for a few preseason games.
“I would have said a week ago we were looking at start of the season,” Hitchcock said. “But things have really moved quickly now so we will see.
“We are assuming he is going to be ready for the season.”
Heading into camp, the Blues planned to pair Gunnarsson with Alex Pietrangelo. When they found out he wouldn’t be ready, the team reverted to last year’s methodology, pairing Pietrangelo with Jay Bouwmeester. When Gunnarsson is ready, Hitchcock would like to take a look at him on the team’s top pairing.
“We wanted Gunnarsson to play with ‘Petro’ in camp; that was the plan all along,” admitted Hitchcock.
When he returns, the Blues do not expect Gunnarsson to be out of place playing in a prominent role. The basis for their assumption is that defenseman spent the first part of last season playing on Toronto’s second pairing, while partnering with Dion Phaneuf to make up the club’s first pairing for the second half of the year. Gunnarsson had three goals, 17 points last year and averaged over 19 minutes of ice time per game in 2013-14.
“He’s used to those types of minutes,” said Hitchcock. “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. He’s carrying as heavy minutes as anyone who is a third on our team.”
Hitchcock sees Gunnarsson as a full-time top-four defenseman. The defenseman the Blues gave up in the trade for Gunnarsson, Roman Polak, was consistently on the club’s third pairing.
“He’s a top-four defenseman, so wherever he plays he’s a top-four guy,” said Hitchcock. “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.”
As of right now, Gunnarsson is still focused more on conditioning than where he will be in the Blues’ lineup. The Blues aren’t planning to rush him back, but Gunnarsson could be joining the team’s lineup full-time sooner rather than later.
“The whole focus is to get him up to speed towards the end of camp,” said Hitchcock.