TORONTO - Rocking a tinted visor, a new look he debuted at the start of Phase 3 training camp, Dougie Hamilton returned to Carolina Hurricanes practice on Thursday.
The defenseman, who last practiced with the team on July 22 in Raleigh, has been skating on his own in Toronto but has otherwise since been "unfit to participate," as is the new official injury nomenclature.
While the Canes' might have a week's layoff in between postseason games, the empty calendar affords them the opportunity to get Hamilton back up to speed and potentially in the lineup for Game 1 against a still-to-be-determined opponent.
"It's just a good sign that he's out there with the guys in a regular kind of form," head coach Rod Brind'Amour said after practice. "We didn't push him or anything today, but it's the first step in hopefully getting him back."
A return to practice is the next important step in what's been a somewhat frustrating process for Hamilton, who suffered a broken fibula in his left leg in mid-January, which required season-ending surgery to repair.
Phase 3 marked the Hamilton's long-awaited return to the ice, only to have that again cut short by another undisclosed injury.
"It's been hard for me, maybe mentally more than anything right now. Just to make that step is good," Hamilton said after Thursday's practice. "Maybe the hardest part through the whole thing is watching the games and not being able to be with the guys. Win or loss, you want to be there. It's hard to be on the outside and feel like you're not a part of it."
Before he left the ice during a power-play drill in training camp, Hamilton skated alongside Jaccob Slavin on the Canes' top defensive pair. He was also the lone defenseman on the team's first power-play unit. Both spots have since been occupied by Sami Vatanen, who recorded three assists, including two on the power play, in three qualifying round games.
Once Hamilton is ready to reenter the lineup, Brind'Amour doesn't expect him to be held back much, if at all.
"If he's in there, you've got to expect him to be on the power play. That's what he does," Brind'Amour said. "Where you might cut him back is 5-on-5, things like that, certain matchups, maybe. That's something we'll figure out. It really depends on how he feels."
The first day felt "pretty great," said Hamilton, who put in some extra conditioning work with assistant coach Dean Chynoweth after practice.
"We're building to hopefully get him back for the next game, whenever that is," Brind'Amour said. "We'll keep giving him more every day and see where it goes."
"I mean, I was hoping to get back for Game 1 of the first (qualifying) round. I think I've learned through all this just to take it day-by-day. I keep trying to remind myself that," Hamilton said. "I'm just trying to get back to feeling 100 percent again."
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Once he reaches that point, the Canes already deep blue line becomes even more formidable. After all, Hamilton was an All Star and a viable Norris Trophy candidate, with 40 points (14g, 26a) in 47 games in what was developing into a career season, before he was injured in Columbus.
That first game back - whenever it is and whoever it's against - is going to feel good.
"For sure," Hamilton smiled. "The guys played great the first three games, so it was a lot of fun to watch them and cheer them on. I'm just itching to be able to join them."