Traverse City — Danny DeKeyser was in the lineup to start last season, but you could tell something wasn’t quite right.
Having had back surgery, which pretty much wiped out DeKeyser’s 2019-20 season (he only played eight games), DeKeyser returned to action but wasn’t the same player.
Some of DeKeyser’s strength wasn’t there, and it was affecting him on the ice.
“I don’t think I really ever knew how much better I was going to get,” DeKeyser said Tuesday on a Zoom call with media. “I was just preparing to play with whatever strength that I got back, and yes, it was definitely frustrating throughout the process because it took so long to get healthy.
“It was an injury (DeKeyser’s disk was pressing on spinal nerves) that wasn’t a simple thing, it was fairly complex, and you were unsure how it was going to heal.”
Not having all the strength in his lower body was affecting DeKeyser.
It reached a point where the Red Wings sat DeKeyser for almost three weeks, a total of nine games, simply to work in the weight room and regain strength.
The rest helped. DeKeyser returned in late February and as the weeks progressed, a sense of normalcy and effectiveness returned to his game.
Now, DeKeyser heads into this regular season so much more confident and at ease than compared to last season.
“It took a while to get better,” he said, “but it was nice to kind of turn the corner and once I did that, I was a lot more confident.”
The way DeKeyser described his injury, it’s no wonder the process to regain full strength was slow and deliberate.
“I lost a lot of strength in my left leg,” DeKeyser said. “I had some nerve damage that ran down under my foot and it kind of affected my whole leg and the whole muscle chain. Part of it was just getting everything to heal as much as I could, but the other thing was some of the muscles were inactive for so long, I was trying to work on getting everything to fire properly, and work in sync.”
Some days, he said, his hamstring would feel good but the calf wouldn’t do its work. Or vice versa.
“(I needed) everything working consistently together so that whole chain produces a lot more strength,” DeKeyser said.
Coach Jeff Blashill was hopeful DeKeyser would regain strength and return to being one of the steadiest defenders in the NHL. He was hopeful, but like a lot of other people, somewhat uncertain.
“You just don’t know what is going to happen,” Blashill said. “So to say did I feel confident, I didn’t know how his body was going to for sure recover. I know our people had a plan in place and we were hoping he would continue (to recover), but you just don’t know.
“The first part of the year, as the year wore on, it looked like he wasn’t able to play to the the level he is accustomed to playing. So we said let’s sit him out for a while and concentrate on him getting stronger.”
When DeKeyser returned, Blashill saw the type of player he was accustomed to seeing.
“He played real well,” Blashill said. “By the end of the year, he played real well.”
Paired with Filip Hronek, the duo provided a shutdown presence for the Wings, going against the opposition’s top lines.
DeKeyser long has been considered one of the better defensive defenseman in the league, a deft penalty killer, and a sneaky effective offensive threat.
The fact DeKeyser appears to be closer to his usual self should provide a boon for the Wings’ lineup.
“He’s way ahead of a year ago, of six months ago, probably three months ago,” Blashill said. “He’s worked extraordinarily hard at it. He’s a committed person.
“He’s been a top-four defender in the league for a long time. He’s underrated. He’s one of the better defenders in the league that can move a puck and can do other things as well. He’s not one-dimensional.”
With the way the Wings are constructed this season, and given his stature in the locker room, DeKeyser also is going to be a key leader in this lineup.
“A major leadership role,” Blashill said. “Danny has been around a long time in this organization. He’s earned the right to be a leader in this room.”
Being able to play healthy was a huge boost for DeKeyser.
He was moving better, the strength was returning, and all those ingredients improved his confidence.
“I’d say the last eight games or so I started to feel real good and I was close to 100%,” DeKeyser said. “Going into the offseason, four or five months of rest and training, coming in here (training camp) I feel great.
“It’s definitely a good feeling going into camp, after having a summer under my belt to get into shape and train and skate, I have more confidence heading into this season.
“My body is better prepared.”
What also makes DeKeyser feel good is a Wings lineup with more depth, specifically on defense. The Wings have eight defensemen who could be considered NHL-caliber, and it will give Blashill much flexibility.
“We have a lot of guys who are capable of playing,” DeKeyser said. “If anyone isn’t playing up to standards, there are guys who can jump in and play.”
For DeKeyser, being able to have the ability to play up to his standards, playing healthy again, is a welcome relief.
“I feel the way I want to feel,” DeKeyser said.