Throughout the offseason, Marco Sturm has been thought of mostly as a mere convenience.
The ability to put the veteran winger ? and his $3.5 million salary ? on long-term injured reserve has given the Bruins a temporary reprieve for their cap issues. They can wait another three months or more to figure out a more permanent solution, as general manager Peter Chiarelli has stated several times this summer that Sturm will not be back until mid-November at the earliest from his latest serious knee injury.
But will that temporary cap relief be Sturm?s greatest contribution to the club this year? Or will he be able to regain the form that helped him post seven 20-goal seasons in his last eight years in the NHL?
With the time he?ll miss at the start of the season, another 20-goal season is a long shot. The bigger question is whether he can produce at a 20-goal pace in the games he is able to play this year. That?s a reasonable query, as Sturm?s biggest asset offensively is his speed, which is almost certain to be affected now that he has undergone major surgery on both of his knees in the past two years.
Sturm?s 2008-09 season was cut short after just 19 games when he tore the ACL in his left knee, requiring surgery. He made it back to start last season on time and survived the regular season and opening round of the playoffs, only to blow out his right knee on the first shift of the opening game of the second round as he attempted to put a hit on Philadelphia defenseman Matt Carle.
"I could hear it right away, the big pop," said Sturm in his last public comments, just two days after suffering the injury. "I?ve heard it before and I knew it right away. It?s going to be the same thing."
Actually, this injury was even worse than the one to his left knee the previous year. This time he tore multiple ligaments, and required surgery for an ACL reconstruction, MCL repair and partial lateral meniscectomy, which was done on May 18. "It?s exactly like Tom Brady?s," said Sturm, referring to the knee injury that cost the Patriots star quarterback the 2008 season. Brady was able to return last year and put up big numbers once again while making it through the 2009 season without any further issues with the knee.
The nature of skating puts different stresses on the knee, but Brady?s recovery can at least serve as some inspiration for Sturm. He?ll need all the encouragement he can get, as having gone through the rehab process once already, Sturm knows how grueling it can be.
"That?s going to be the toughest challenge," said Sturm. "You know the last one I didn?t know what to expect, so I just went at it. I was around all season with the boys. That helped me a lot. This time I know how hard it is rehabbing. It?s a lot of work."
It won?t be easy for Sturm, who turns 32 in September and has the wear and tear of 855 NHL games on his body, to make it through another lengthy rehabilitation. And psychologically, the strain could be even tougher when he does return. Knowing that another knee injury could end his career, will Sturm be able to play with the same abandon he has in the past?
Despite the challenges ahead, Sturm has vowed to return.
"After the ACL from last year, I just never thought there was going to be another injury like this," said Sturm. "It?s a tough one, but I?ve always come back from big injuries and I know I?m going to do it again."
Of course, even a healthy Sturm is not without some concerns. Sturm led the Bruins with 22 goals last year, but he managed just one in the final 23 games he played, including a 0-0-0 line in seven playoff contests.
Sturm is a notoriously streaky scorer, but even by his standards last season featured way to many cold stretches. Some of that may have had to be with trying to recover his timing and confidence after the previous year?s injury, but if so, those issues will only be magnified as he attempts to come back from another major surgery.
Sturm could also face a challenge finding a spot in the lineup when he?s ready. Not only will Chiarelli need to move out some significant salary to make room under the cap, but with Nathan Horton and Tyler Seguin added, and the possibility of some of the organization?s talented youngsters taking advantage of Sturm?s absence to establish themselves at the NHL level, Sturm could have a tough time stepping right back into a prominent role on a scoring line.
He possesses a no-trade clause, so the Bruins can?t easily unload him, not that there would be a huge market for a player coming off such an injury anyway. But with Sturm in the final year of his contract, the Bruins aren?t necessarily going to build a lineup around him either.
Sturm can still be valuable though. When he is on one of his hot streaks, few are better at finding the back of the net. And even when he?s struggling to score, he does contribute in other areas. He remains one of the club?s better defensive forwards, as he finished second on the team with a plus-14 rating and 31 takeaways last year. He is a solid penalty killer and has been a mainstay on the power play.
The Bruins are a better team with a healthy Sturm in the lineup. But they won?t know until November at the earliest just how healthy Sturm will be, and how long he can stay that way.
NESN.com will answer one Bruins question every day in August.
Wednesday, Aug. 18: What will a full season of Dennis Seidenberg mean to the defense?
Friday, Aug. 20: Will Blake Wheeler be able to produce consistently this year?