SYOSSET, N.Y. –
It's been a decade since Rick DiPietro
participated in his first NHL training camp, but he felt like a kid again Saturday morning.
DiPietro, who has been limited to just 13 appearances over the last two seasons due to various knee and hip injuries, was on the ice with the New York Islanders
as they opened training camp with hopes of surprising a lot of people in 2010-11.
"It's good to have a normal routine back," DiPietro told NHL.com. "The last couple of years have been tough, but I've learned a lot of pretty important lessons. You take the positive out of all of that and move forward. I'm pretty optimistic and excited about the start of the season."
That's because the No. 1 overall selection in the 2000 Entry Draft is living without pain again. It's been quite some time since DiPietro -- who turns 29 on Sunday -- has felt this good.
"It's been a while ... the last month or so," DiPietro said when asked how long it's been since he last felt pain in his knee. "I give all the credit in the world to our training staff and doctors."
DiPietro's health could go a long way in determining whether the Islanders will still be playing at the conclusion of the regular season. He was emerging as one of the NHL's top goaltenders when his cavalcade of injuries began at during the 2008 NHL All-Star Weekend.
The hope is that No. 39 can simply stay healthy and help the Isles take another step in 2010-11.
"Healthy and vocal," Isles coach Scott Gordon
said of DiPietro's and the Isles' first day of camp. "It was good. We're going to try to do everything right. Obviously, this was really the first all-out practice. If we don't feel like it's the right thing for him to skate tomorrow, we'll just let him have it off. We've got a long training camp here. We've just got to try to make sure that we do everything we can to allow him to be fully functional once the season starts. We haven't even been able to see him on the ice the first day the last two years, so this was a huge step in the right direction."
DiPietro attempted to come back last December and appeared in eight games for the Islanders, posting a 2-5-0 record with a 2.60 goals-against average and a .900 save percentage. But swelling in his left knee forced him to once again shut things down. DiPietro believes he did not return too early last season.
"I've followed all the proper protocol," DiPietro said. "It's one of those touchy injuries where it's kind of a day-to-day thing and see how it responds. It was kind of a weird situation coming back in that part of the season. You want to be careful. You want to push it to a point, but you don't want to set yourself back long-term. I think if the circumstances were a little bit different and we had a more realistic chance to make the playoffs, we could have maybe pushed it a little bit more. But at the same time, you've got to be smart about stuff. We're all trying to do the right thing here.
"It's as normal as it's been in a long time," he added. "You've got to continue to monitor it and do all those little exercises that seem tedious and painful, but in the long run it'll pay off."
That's obviously the hope for the Islanders and DiPietro, who has endured quite the saga over the last two years, including a false rumor reported by a New York radio station this summer that the franchise goaltender was involved in a serious car accident.
"I didn't even know about it ... I was actually in L.A. and I was three hours behind, so when I woke up my phone was just full of text messages," DiPietro said. "I had a broken pelvis and everything else. It's crazy. It was something you laugh about later. Some of the messages I got were pretty funny."
Forward Trent Hunter
, who has known DiPietro since the pair played together at AHL Bridgeport in 2001-02, hopes it's his friend who gets the last laugh. Hunter and his teammates certainly know that DiPietro has been through enough.
"He's been through a lot ... it's been tough just watching," Hunter said. "He's worked very hard. He definitely deserves to be back here this first day. We all just want to see him have a healthy season because he's a huge part of this team. When he's at the top of his game, he's a huge difference maker."
"The last couple of years have been tough, but I've learned a lot of pretty important lessons. You take the positive out of all of that and move forward. I'm pretty optimistic and excited about the start of the season." -- Rick DiPietro
One area in which DiPietro definitely makes a difference is his puckhandling – he saves his defensemen a lot of wear and tear because of his skills at moving the puck.
"I love when Ricky is on the ice," defenseman Mark Streit
said. "He's a very big part of our team and the whole organization. It's great to have him out there. He brings a good attitude. He's a fun guy and he works hard. It's just a pleasure to have him around. I enjoy his company."
Naturally, a healthy DiPietro would like to play every night, but both he and Isles' brass realize that's not realistic. For now, both parties just want to see DiPietro remain healthy and contribute to the up-and-coming club.
"There's a lot of different goals that I've set for myself," DiPietro said. "I haven't put any numbers on how many games I'm going to play or anything like that. I have to go out and prove that I can stay healthy and win hockey games. That's the biggest thing."
Of course, until DiPietro can do that, the doubters will remain. While it must be frustrating to hear jokes about his health in the media or from fans, DiPietro knows it comes with the territory, especially when he's only entering Season 5 of his 15-year, $67.5 million contract.
"Every fan, every reporter has every right to write what they want or say what they want," DiPietro said. "It's my job to do everything I can every single day to stay healthy and be smart.
"The Islanders made a big commitment and I made a big commitment to be here. I aim to do everything in my power every single day to hold up my end of the bargain and bring the Stanley Cup back to Long Island."
Follow Brian Compton on Twitter: @BComptonNHL