Detroit — Danny DeKeyser knew this might be a rocky season — and he was right.
The veteran Red Wings’ defenseman was returning to the lineup after having back surgery in December 2019.
He played eight games early in the 2019-20 regular season, and with that season called off early due to the coronavirus, and the 2020-21 season not getting underway until January, DeKeyser went a staggering 15 months between games.
“Coming out of training camp, I was definitely struggling a bit,” DeKeyser said.
But toward the end of the season, DeKeyser, 31, looked more like the reliable, consistent player he’s always been.
The entire comeback, the work and diligence DeKeyser showed, they were all reasons DeKeyser has been named the Red Wings’ nominee for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, awarded to the NHL player who best exemplifies the qualities of “perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication” to hockey.
The selection is made by the Detroit chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association. Voting for the Masterton among the PHWA ends Monday. The Masterton, and remainder of the NHL Awards, will be announced in July.
How difficult did it get for DeKeyser this season?
With his play lagging and his strength not completely back, the Wings made DeKeyser a healthy scratch — although you could argue he was unhealthy — for nine games from Feb. 3-19.
At the time, it was a gut punch. But, DeKeyser realized it was needed.
“There were nine games there they sat me down and told me to work on some stuff and try to get back healthy again,” said DeKeyser, who was even put on waivers in mid-February, which was more of an ability to gain salary-cap flexibility for the team rather than an indictment of DeKeyser’s play. “It had been so long since I played.”
DeKeyser spent the time away from the lineup mainly in the weight room. The surgery had sapped him of much of his power, and the coaching staff saw in training camp and early in the regular season that DeKeyser wasn’t quite 100%.
But being away from the lineup enabled DeKeyser to recover some of that hockey strength that was so badly needed.
“I definitely felt a lot better,” DeKeyser said of his return to the lineup. “The second half of the season I definitely felt better; I was moving better and I felt stronger out there.
“That was one of my goals coming into the season, first of all, try to play, and to just get better as the weeks and months went on.
“That’s what I did”
In 47 games DeKeyser had four goals and eight assists, for 12 points, with a plus-3 rating. DeKeyser was one of only seven Wings’ regulars during the season who finished in the plus category this season.
DeKeyser also scored goals in both games in Columbus the final week of the season, showing some of the offensive element that was missing.
“For me, that (final weekend) was pretty positive going into a full offseason, where I can be healthy and train,” DeKeyser said “Because, obviously, last year I was still out of rehab and I couldn’t get to the point where I wanted to be, to play at this level.
“That will be important for me this summer. Definitely a positive feeling going into the offseason, just being healthy will be huge for me.”
Coach Jeff Blashill was enthusiastic about DeKeyser’s progress through the season.
As the season went on, and DeKeyser’s minutes grew, DeKeyser provided the Wings with the defensive stability that was often lacking for over a calendar year.
“The fact he scored a couple of goals showed he did get stronger through the course of the season,” Blashill said. “He did work hard at it and continued to get that strength back, and with that strength, he’s a real good player that’s been in this league for a long time.
“Danny can add offense. One of the things he’s had to get back is some of his offense, because of the fact he doesn’t have the same power that he did a year ago before the surgery.
“(But) it’s coming.”
Teammate Tyler Bertuzzi had a similar back surgery this month and could be facing similar issues when next season arrives.
DeKeyser was in touch with Bertuzzi, after the forward returned home.
“I checked in with him to see how things went,” DeKeyser said. “Everything went good. I just told him if he needed anything let me know. It’s not an easy surgery to go through. Your downtime after that is extended, so it’s tough to just even get around the house after a surgery like that.
“It can wear on you sometimes, so I just told him if he needed anything let me know and stay positive, stay grinding.”
Forward Bobby Ryan, who signed with the Wings in the offseason, won the Masterton Trophy while with the Ottawa Senators last summer after returning late that season from substance-abuse issues.
Steve Yzerman won the last Red Wing to win the Masterton, in 2003 after returning from serious knee surgery.