Danny DeKeyser knew this was going to be a different type of hockey season, in so many different ways.
Sure there was the COVID-19 factor, and the challenges on and off the ice that presented. But, personally, DeKeyser was returning to game competition after missing a little more than a calendar year.
DeKeyser, 31, had surgery for a herniated disc early in the 2019-20 season — he only played eight games — and the delayed start of the NHL season because of the coronavirus only prolonged things.
So long without an actual game, and let’s face it, still recovering from a tricky surgery, DeKeyser knew it would be a challenge.
“For sure,” DeKeyser said recently, talking about the path back. “I didn’t know coming into the year what it was going to be like, how I was going to feel in terms of that kind of stuff. My mindset was to just come in and try to get back to 100% as much as possible and get back to playing how I was a couple seasons ago as best I could.”
And, if things didn’t go smoothly, DeKeyser knew he might have to sit and wait and prepare a little longer.
“I knew I could take some time and I knew at the start of the year if I wasn’t 100% ready, maybe I would take some games off and miss some time,” DeKeyser said. “Mentally I prepared myself for that and used that time the best I could to get going.”
DeKeyser started the season, but anyone watching could tell it was a bit of struggle.
In terms of strength, timing, physicality, it all seemed as if DeKeyser was still a bit off and attempting to regain all the attributes that had made him a quality NHL shut-down defenseman for nine seasons.
So, coach Jeff Blashill met with DeKeyser and told the veteran defenseman to essentially take a break.
In essence, DeKeyser was a healthy (unhealthy) scratch from Feb. 3, until rejoining the lineup Feb. 20. DeKeyser missed nine games, and in hindsight, it was probably the best thing to do.
“It helped me to just kind of give me more time, basically, and get stuff done in the gym I needed to get done,” Blashill said. “Coming into the year, you have a shortened preseasons and no preseason games, normally we’d have eight exhibition games.
“It (the time off) just gave me more time to kind of get going and try to find my game a bit. It had been a while playing every other day, and you get into a rhythm.
“(But) it’s gone smoothly lately.”
Since returning, DeKeyser saw his minutes gradually increase while being paired with Filip Hronek. Three times, DeKeyer went over 20 minutes of ice time, until recently settling into just over 18 minutes of ice time, and playing the steady, subtle brand of hockey that has been his trademark.
In 27 games DeKeyser had a goal and four assists, and has a plus-1 rating — one of only five Red Wings regulars to be even or in the plus category.
“He has really good hockey smarts,” Blashill said. “I don’t think anyone plays 100 percent (healthy) and he isn’t 100 percent yet. But strength and power aren’t where they need to be yet, but he uses his hockey smarts to be an effective hockey player.
“The strength and power continue to go in the right direction. And as long they continue in the right direction, he become an even more effective hockey player.
DeKeyser didn’t necessarily rest or take it easy during his two weeks out of the lineup.
Instead, the time was used as if DeKeyser was still in training camp and getting ready for the season.
“An extension of training camp,” was how DeKeyser described it. “Coming into the season, what I like to do the first part of the year is hit it real hard on the ice and hit it hard in the weight room.
“So, that’s basically what I used those three weeks to do and get myself into the best game shape possible, both on and off the ice, and do the best I could in terms of that.”
DeKeyser has noticed a change physically since having the time away from the lineup.
From the start of training camp to January, to now, there’s been improvement.
“I feel a lot better, a lot stronger,” DeKeyser said. “When you’re playing every other day it’s easy to get into a rhythm of playing games and making sure you take care of your body because it’s a packed schedule.”
This particular schedule isn’t entirely conducive for someone returning from back surgery. The endless onslaught of games every other day is a challenge for any player, healthy or otherwise.
But DeKeyser does see a positive in it, as long as you maintain conditioning, and watch after yourself physically.
“It’s a little tough if you get some bumps and bruises to feel good and healthy and recover from those because there’s not enough time between games,” DeKeyser said. “But if you’re feeling good and skating well and feeling strong on the ice, it’s (the compact schedule) is a benefit because you just keep going out there. There’s no breaks, nothing to think about, and you just go out and play.
“It works both ways. Guys are really taking care of their bodies and doing the extra stuff to stay healthy.”
To further illustrate the rollercoaster type of season it’s been, and the uniqueness of it, DeKeyser was placed on waivers Feb. 14. It wasn’t necessarily for DeKeyser’s performance as it was, simply, to give the Wings roster management flexibility, and being able to place DeKeyser on the taxi squad when necessary.
DeKeyser has one more year left on his contract, at a $5-million salary cap hit. Though it it was unlikely another team was going to claim DeKeyser at that point of the schedule, it was always possible.
And the experience only added to what has been a season full of “ups and downs for me.”
“But I’m just trying to stay as positive as possible and trying to find my game to where it was a couple seasons ago,” he said. “It hasn’t been easy, but I’m just trying to battle out there every night and compete and give the team the best chance to win.”