PITTSBURGH, Pa. - Penguins forward Jordan Staal is wearing a protective boot on his injured right foot and is not yet close to being able to skate or practise, a setback for one of the NHL's best two-way forwards.
The Penguins' initial estimate that Staal could return by late October appears to be overly optimistic, and it might be well into the season before he is back.
"There's been a lot of ups and downs, so I can't really put my finger on when I'll be back," Staal said Thursday.
Staal, a 2009-10 finalist for the Selke Trophy that is awarded to the league's best defensive forward, injured a tendon when Canadiens defenceman P.K. Subban's skate cut through the top of his foot and sliced a tendon during the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs April 30. The two were competing for a loose puck.
Staal underwent surgery immediately and returned later in the series but, after having a second operation in June, developed an infection.
"It's been ongoing ever since," Staal said while talking to reporters for the first time since training camp opened Sept. 17. "I'm just trying to clear it up and it's been frustrating. But I think right now it feels really good and it's heading in the right direction."
Teammates said Staal had five medical procedures to treat the injury and infection, which caused the 22-year-old some discomfort. The treatments were to remove infected tissue, and he also required extensive dosages of antibiotics.
Staal wasn't able to work out during the summer, when many NHL players work on their individual skills.
"I didn't have much working out this summer, and the way my body is right now I have to get into shape pretty quickly. It's not going to be easy, but hopefully I can do it quick," said Staal, who still can't fit his foot into a skate.
Another problem is the months of inactivity have "kind of withered (the leg) away a little bit," Staal said. "I've had a lot of long nights where I can't sleep."
Staal hopes to resume working out as early as next week, but it might be weeks before he can skate again.
"It's going to be so hard on him mentally," teammate Pascal Dupuis said. "You don't play with an injury like this. You just take your time. It's early in the year. He'll be back when he's ready."
Staal's injury will end his streak of playing in 302 consecutive regular season games; the Penguins open Thursday at home against Philadelphia in the first regular season game in Consol Energy Center.
Coach Dan Bylsma, searching for more scoring from his top lines, planned to shift Staal from the No. 3 to the No. 2 line and play former NHL scoring champion Evgeni Malkin alongside him as a wing. Whether Bylsma goes ahead with the plan may depend on how quickly Staal returns and how well he plays when he does. Currently, Malkin is skating on a line centred by Mike Comrie.
"I feel pretty comfortable that once I get into shape, I should be fine throughout the season," Staal said.
Bylsma also won't estimate when Staal might return.
"There is not a timetable right now," he said. "He's on the road, and when he gets to the next step we'll get him on the ice. We're just making sure he's going to heal and gets better before he gets to the next step."
Staal had 21 goals and 28 assists last season and led Pittsburgh with a plus-19 rating. He had a career high 29 goals as a rookie in 2006-07, and he had two goals and an assist as the Penguins beat the Red Wings in the 2009 Stanley Cup finals.