Canes’ Pitkanen still not recovered from heel injury

calexander@newsobserver.comSeptember 3, 2013 

— The Carolina Hurricanes are prepared to start the new season without injured defenseman Joni Pitkanen, general manager Jim Rutherford said Tuesday.

Rutherford said Pitkanen, who suffered a broken left heel bone in April, has not fully recovered. Rutherford said he learned a week ago that Pitkanen still could not put weight on the heel and had not been able to skate.

“We don’t know how long it’s going to be that he’s going to be out,” Rutherford said. “Is he going to be out a couple of weeks, a month, a half a year, a whole year? I don’t know. … But I’m getting prepared for the worst at this point.”

He said Pitkanen, 29, would have a CT scan in Raleigh on Thursday.

The Hurricanes faced some serious health concerns during the offseason. In addition to Pitkanen, forward Tuomo Ruutu had hip surgery and captain Eric Staal suffered a third-degree knee sprain in May after taking a knee-on-knee hit during the IIHF World Championship in Sweden.

Staal, who did not need surgery, and Ruutu have fully recovered. In July, Rutherford said he had spoken with Pitkanen, noting the veteran from Finland was optimistic about his rehab after surgery and said he would be ready for the Sept.11 start to training camp.

Pitkanen’s setback is a disturbing development for a team looking to strengthen its defensive corps. The Hurricanes traded for defenseman Andrej Sekera in June and signed free agent Mike Komisarek in July in an attempt to improve the back end.

Canes coach Kirk Muller might have to rely more on Ryan Murphy, Carolina’s first-round draft pick in 2011, or Brett Bellemore as a possible replacement for Pitkanen. Muller said he could dress seven defensemen for games and will have to balance out the number of minutes being played by those in the lineup.

“Joni is certainly a guy we’re going to miss,” Muller said. “We’ve got to put our (defensive) group together so that the guys are all able to take the minutes (Pitkanen) was used to taking.”

Pitkanen, when healthy, was among the NHL leaders in minutes played per game. He topped the league in the 2009-10 season with more than 27 minutes a game, and was 13th the next season with 25 minutes a game.

Pitkanen played just 30 games in 2011-12 because of concussion and knee injuries. He was in the lineup for 22 games last season, first being sidelined because of a groin injury and then suffering the heel injury.

Pitkanen hurt his heel as he attempted to touch up the puck for an icing call in an April 2 game against the Washington Capitals at PNC Arena. He lost his balance and tumbled into the boards, breaking the calcaneus bone in his heel.

“It’s a serious injury, where he got hurt,” Rutherford said. “At the time after he had the operation the doctor said this is more like a car-accident impact than a sports injury.”

Rutherford said the Canes could invite a few unsigned defensemen with NHL experience to training camp on a tryout basis. If it appears Pitkanen will out an extended period, he said the team may consider a trade of free-agent signing.

Rutherford said that will come only after Murphy, Bellemore and others have been given an opportunity in camp and exhibitions.

Murphy, 20, played four games for the Canes last season before being sent back to junior hockey and has the speed and offensive ability to make the NHL roster. The biggest concerns are his size (5-foot-11, 180 pounds) and defensive toughness.

“He’s got to show that he’s mentally prepared to play every day,” Muller said. “He’s got to do what he does well offensively and play well enough defensively that he’s not a liability out there.”

Murphy will compete in the Traverse City (Mich.) rookie tournament this week, an event hosted by the Detroit Red Wings. Forward Elias Lindholm, Carolina’s first-round draft pick this year, also is with the Canes’ rookie team, but Rutherford said the Swede still is recovering from a shoulder injury sustained in July during the team’s prospects camp and may be held out of games.

“There’s no structural damage. It’s a deep bruise,” Rutherford said of Lindholm’s injury.

Pitkanen’s status is the most serious concern for the Canes, who open the season Oct. 4 against the Red Wings.

“He’s a difference-maker,” Eric Staal said. “He plays a lot of minutes and plays tough minutes. Those are the kind of players you want in the lineup.”

NOTE: Forward Radek Dvorak will attend Canes training camp on a professional tryout, Rutherford said. Dvorak, 36, has played 1,200 regular-season games with eight NHL teams, and the Czech once was Muller’s teammate with the Florida Panthers.

Alexander: 919-829-8945 Twitter: @ice_chip

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