After the year he's had, Andrew Ladd isn't taking any day in the NHL for granted.
Not that he was before, but after recovering from an ACL tear - his second major knee injury of last season - and spending the past month and a half with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, Ladd is appreciative to be back in the New York Islanders locker room and healthy.
"It was a little bit of a grind mentally," Ladd said. "Going through the first one and then having to come right back and do pretty much the same thing again. I've just been trying to focus on what I can do each day to get back to here and get back to playing NHL hockey."
It's been a long road back for Ladd, who was limited to 26 games last year and last played an NHL game on March 24th against the Arizona Coyotes. To have gone through a lengthy recovery process only to begin again takes a mental toll, but Ladd said the support of his family, as well as determination to continue playing in the NHL, helped him through the adversity.
"It's a long process," Ladd said. "The only thing I could really take from the first one was the process that you could go through and the timetable to get back on the ice and put that into the second one to enhance my recovery. I tried to stay upbeat and positive as much as possible and having a great wife and three great kids at home helps a lot."
Video: Practice 12/22: Andrew Ladd
A look back at Ladd's timeline. Ladd resumed skating back in July and participated in the informal skates before training camp, but did not skate with the Isles until Oct. 5, when he joined the group with a non-contact designation. He was cleared for contact on Oct. 20 and was sent to Bridgeport for conditioning on Nov. 2, where he had one goal in five games.
Islanders President and General Manager Lou Lamoriello said the team wanted to see more out of Ladd and his surgically-repaired knee after his conditioning stint, so the team sent him back to Bridgeport for more game action on Nov. 14. Ladd was recalled on Friday in wake of a wrist injury to Cal Clutterbuck. Ladd had eight points (6G, 2A) in his last 14 AHL games.
"He's working hard, his attitude has been tremendous and been great for the young players. He deserved to come up under these circumstances," Lamoriello said on Saturday.
Ladd said he felt the extra time in Bridgeport was beneficial, as he was able to play big minutes for the Sound Tigers and regain his confidence, comfort level and timing. In total, Ladd played 19 games for the Sound Tigers, but said he's felt a breakthrough in his game over the past five. Ladd had three goals in his two games prior to his callup.
"The last five games I've felt a little more comfortable holding onto the puck and getting to the net and stuff like that. Being more physical," Ladd said. "It's probably come a little slower than I want it to, but I've been really confident in the last five games with how I've played."
Head Coach Barry Trotz said he wants to see Ladd's confidence translate into fearlessness when he gets back into the Islanders lineup.
"For him number one is to get some continued health so that he can get some traction and get to be a contributing player in the NHL," Trotz said. "It's been a long road for him. So you hope that he can get in and get some traction."
"If he does get in, he's got to be a little bit fearless again," Trotz added. "He got hurt both times being fearless, but his game was the Andrew Ladd game that's going to keep him in the National Hockey League. You want to make sure that he's feeling that way and when he gets in, he's going to have to play that way."
Video: Practice 12/22: Barry Trotz
As for his time in Bridgeport, Ladd said he approached it with the same attitude as he's had during this entire injury ordeal - a positive one. The NHL vet even bought team dinners for the Sound Tigers during his assignment.
"A big part of going down there is the attitude you take with you," Ladd said. "You can go down and piss and moan and feel sorry for yourself, but I tried to think of it as an opportunity for me to play a lot of minutes and get comfortable again, get your game back, get your wind back and playing. I was playing close to 20 minutes a night and lots of games down there. I tried just to take it as that and just enjoy playing hockey again. At the end of the day it's obviously a job, but trying to find that love for the game is important for everybody. I tried to just enjoy myself."
Losing a majority of last year to injury and spending time in Bridgeport offered some additional perspective to appreciate how special time in the NHL is.
"I don't know if I ever took it for granted. You understand how much of an honor it is to be here and play the game," Ladd said. "Definitely you go back down and you're with a bunch of guys grinding to get an opportunity to get up here and get one game, let alone be a full-time regular, which is everyone's goal. Definitely grounds you a bit and makes you appreciate a) how hard it was to get up there and b) just the grind it takes from everybody to give a shot."
"It's a learning process throughout any adversity," Ladd added. "You're trying to pick things up through all of this. Hopefully I've become a better person and a hockey player."