SUNRISE, Fla. — Ed Jovanovski admitted Saturday morning there were several times during the past several months when he wondered whether he would ever play another NHL game.
His perseverance has paid off, and the Florida Panthers captain is set to make his season debut Saturday against the Nashville Predators at BB&T Center.
"I'm excited, for sure," Jovanovski said after the Panthers' morning skate. "It's been a long while. For me, there's been a lot of days where it beats up on you, but it's all worth it for having the opportunity to play a game again."
Jovanovski will be playing his first game after having hip resurfacing surgery April 5. He played six games last season, none after March 16.
The veteran defenseman first was injured Jan. 29 against the Tampa Bay Lightning and missed 22 games. He came back for the one game in March against the New York Islanders, but his return lasted less than two periods.
"For the most part, I remained positive throughout this whole process, listened to the doctors, listened to our trainers," Jovanovski said. "I was on a pretty good program to get to where I am today. Hopefully all that hard work and all the listening that I had hopefully is going to pay off for me."
Jovanovski's return comes at a time when the Panthers are dealing with injuries on the blue line.
To make room on the roster for Jovanovski, the Panthers put defenseman Dylan Olsen on injured reserve with a lower-body injury. Defenseman Erik Gudbranson also is on IR after undergoing orbital bone surgery Dec. 23.
More than anything, though, Jovanovski brings veteran leadership to the Panthers.
"Getting Jovo back in the locker room is the main thing, having that leadership in the room, his presence," Panthers interim head coach Peter Horachek said. "Obviously, being off for a long time, you're going to have to put up with some timing issues and growing pains a little bit, but having him out there is key."
Jovanovski said playing between 12 and 15 minutes against Nashville "would be a good start for me," but Horachek said he wasn't going in with a predetermined plan.
Regardless of how much Jovanovski plays Saturday, just having him back in the lineup was welcome news for his teammates.
"We're all excited," forward Scottie Upshall said. "Collectively, we've all been crossing our fingers hoping that he'd be able to get back in the lineup. He's worked extremely hard, fought through some tough days and some bad days. It's just nice to see [No.] 55 happy and smiling and ready to go. And whether he gives us five minutes tonight or 15 or 20, they're going to be hard minutes and he's going to be a great leader. He's a determined individual that still has hockey left in his body. We're happy to have him back."
Jovanovski has 495 points in 1,091 NHL games with the Panthers, Vancouver Canucks and Phoenix Coyotes. But game No. 1,092 will be special. Jovanovski said it might even top his NHL debut in terms of significance.
"It's always special playing your first game, [but this is] a little bit more gratifying going through everything that I've been through or how long it's been," he said. "I'm definitely excited. I'm obviously nervous. The biggest thing is being excited being back with the guys. I was around a lot, but having the opportunity to be in the locker room preparing for a game is what my goal was set on.
"This is what I know. This is what I do best, playing and competing. It's something that I'm not ready to walk away from."