For as much as some people go on and on about not being able to know or compare anything, certain things are self-evident, including that the Ottawa Senators are a much, much better team when Erik Karlsson is in their lineup than they are when he's not.
Perhaps that makes their success last season without him even more impressive. However, there can't be much doubt that the team would rather have Karlsson if given a choice--hence his rapid return from a "season-ending" injury suffered at the hands of the perennial Lady Byng nominee Matt Cooke. Though the team was boosted by his return, it was obvious to anyone who had ever watched Karlsson play before that he was not nearly the same player. In fact, he recently estimated that he was at "60%, maybe less" upon his return.
Healthy enough to play and not suffer a setback, but far from healed, Karlsson had four assists in the final three regular season games and another eight points (1G, 7A) in another 10 playoff games.
Is he fully recovered?
Well, in three preseason contests, he has accumulated five points--all assists. His skating and mobility are visibly improved from the last time he played. Prior to those games, Karlsson told the Ottawa Citizen how he was feeling:
"It’s not what it used to be but at the same time it’s better than I thought it would be. I’ve been able to do the things I normally do doing the summer and only time can tell. There’s a number of things that are different. But I have to get used to that. I still feel I have all the strength that I need. It’s a little bit about connection down there, but it shouldn’t be an issue. We haven’t played any games yet, but I’m not concerned at all it’s going to affect my game in any way."
As the statistics show, it didn't. After his first game, Karlsson told the Ottawa Sun:
"It’s the first game of the year and I don’t think I felt any different than any other first game of the year. I obviously had some small issues out there, but I don’t think that’s something I didn’t expect."
In short, he feels comfortable with where he's at, and it shows. But is he fully recovered?
Probably not. Other hockey players who have suffered Achilles tendon injuries describe it as a lengthy healing process.
Travis Zajac of the New Jersey Devils originally tried to return from his injury after just four months (Karlsson returned after about two) before stopping and continuing to rehab. He described his experience like this:
"I think the worst thing is it’s an uncommon injury. So there’s not too much information out there about coming back from it. There are only a few guys out there who’ve had it. I think that makes it tougher to recover from. You don’t know how it’s going to react in a skate. Skating is a totally different movement than walking or coming back to run. You’re in cast for a couple of weeks and then you get into a boot with heel wedges. Each couple of weeks you take one out so you get your foot back to flat eventually. It takes a lot of time. There’s not much you can do for the first month or two. It’s waiting.
Rehab is definitely the key part. A lot of stretching and strengthening exercises and balancing. It’s pretty much teaching your ankle how to move again just because it’s been locked into position for so long. It took a few games. A couple of games before the playoffs and then getting into the playoffs I felt 100 percent. It was a little different. I don’t notice it any more but when you first come back it’s like any injury. It’s in the back of your mind. Time heals everything. It just going to take a little time."
Teemu Selanne, who had his Achilles tendon completely severed in his second year in the league, was able to recover fully and go on to have a career worthy of the Hall of Fame. He described his injury and recovery like this:
"For me, it was about six months (of recovery). I felt soon after that I could play my normal game again."
Sami Salo, who suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon, echoed that sentiment in an interview with the Ottawa Citizen, and offered a positive opinion of Karlsson's future:
"I probably skated after about 3 ½ months. When mine happened, it sounded like somebody shot a shotgun in the area, with the tendon exploding. After the surgery, it really painful for the first couple of weeks, with the rehab was really slow. You have to be careful because you don’t want to stretch the tendon. If it’s loose, you’re screwed. I probably could have played a little earlier, but I didn’t want to take any chances at that time, especially being 36 at that time."
"Speaking to the specialist who operated on mine — he actually did (soccer star David) Beckham’s Achilles, too — he said it’s actually stronger than your other (tendon). It shouldn’t be susceptible to any more (injuries), but when you do explosive training, anything’s possible, with all the torque and power you put into different training. I’ve met a few track-and-field triple jumpers who had Achilles (surgery) before and they returned to form and jumped longer than before, so (Karlsson’s recovery) shouldn’t be a problem."
Karlsson has passed the six-month mark (he was injured in mid-February) and reportedly spent the summer continuing his rehab. In addition, he clearly spent some time in the weight room, having noticeably added more muscle to his frame. His own words and play seem to match the experiences of others in that he feels different, but able to play at close to his old level. When the puck drops next week, Karlsson will be eight months removed from his injury. Is he fully recovered?
Not yet, but it's going to be awfully hard to tell.