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For weeks on end, what Francois Beauchemin did with his time could hardly be called hockey.
Around and around the nearly empty Honda Center ice he would move. Slowly at first. Small circles.
No crossovers, no stops and starts; nothing that would put the least bit of strain on his rebuilt left knee.
Around and around.
|Francois Beauchemin is set to return to the Ducks' lineup after suffering a knee injury on Nov. 14.|
And as the 28-year-old made his often lonely journey around the rink, building up strength, the Anaheim Ducks found themselves likewise aimless. They went 5-7-1 in December, 6-7-1 in January and 6-6-0 in February.
But as Beauchemin's strength increased and he began to do things that more closely resembled hockey, the Ducks, too, found themselves doing the same. Although the Ducks unloaded a number of veterans -- including three key members of their Stanley Cup roster from 2007 (Travis Moen, Samuel Pahlsson and Chris Kunitz were dealt to San Jose, Chicago and Pittsburgh, respectively) -- the Ducks have gone 10-5-1 since the beginning of March and now sit on the verge of their fourth straight trip to the playoffs since the lockout.
Barring a setback, Beauchemin will join them Friday night, and the Ducks suddenly don't look like anybody's idea of a walk in the playoff park.
"I'm pretty excited about it," Beauchemin told ESPN.com. "I've been feeling really strong."
Although he does not boast the profile of the Ducks' other twin defensive giants, captain Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger, Beauchemin's contributions to the Ducks' emergence as a league power cannot be underestimated. During the Ducks' run to the Cup in 2007, he averaged an incredible 30:33 a night in ice time during the playoffs. With a big shot and a penchant for tough play, the 6-foot, 207-pound Beauchemin has been a favorite of coach Randy Carlyle since coming over in a deal with Columbus early in the 2005-06 season.
This season, though, disaster struck early.
On Nov. 14, Beauchemin was deep in the Nashville end after firing a backhand shot at the Predators' net when his skate caught in a rut in the ice. Hit by the Preds' Scott Nichol from behind, Beauchemin went over on his knee. With his skate in the rut, there was no give and his ACL tore instantly.
"Right away, that's what I said: This is bad," he recalled.
He couldn't put any weight on his leg.
"And there was a sharp, burning pain. I knew it was serious," Beauchemin said.
The initial prognosis was grim: six months, the entire season and the first part of the playoffs, if he was lucky. But Beauchemin approached the healing with dogged determination. His most serious injury as a player dated back to junior, where he broke a bone in his wrist and was out for three months.
"That was different. The knee reconstruction is a lot harder," Beauchemin said.
You have to learn how to walk again and run again and then skate again, Beauchemin explained. "We started really slowly." He waited 12 weeks before he started to skate at all.
Although it might seem as though time dragged on, Beauchemin said the time has flown by. He has a 2½-year-old son and a daughter on the way, so there was the unexpected bonus of time at home. Factor in rehabilitation six days a week, and he said the weeks seemed to fly by.
When he first hit the ice at Week 12, he was told he probably had 50 percent of his skating power. So he worked slowly, building that by five percent a week.
"You can't rush it," he said. "You've really got to take it one day at a time, one exercise at a time. You've got to listen to what your knee is telling you."
Carlyle told ESPN The Magazine's E.J. Hradek on Thursday that Beauchemin has "looked a little rusty in the drills," and Carlyle wants to manage expectations for his defenseman.
"He's not going to be the same guy he was when he went out," Carlyle said.
Still, both Carlyle and GM Bob Murray are thrilled at what his presence in the lineup might mean in the coming days.
"Obviously, it would be great to have him," Carlyle said "He's a warrior. He'll come and play hard when he gets his opportunity. That's what we expect of him."
"It speaks volumes about the work he's done to come back," Murray told ESPN.com. "That tells you all you need to know about Frankie. It can only help. It's nothing but positives."
As for his team, Murray said he has no real answers for what happened in Anaheim this year before the trade deadline.
"For the life of me, I'll never figure out why that other group, there just never seemed to be any chemistry there," Murray said. "It was flat."
After the deadline, though, when Ryan Whitney and James Wisniewski joined the team from Pittsburgh, and with rookie Bobby Ryan hitting his stride and college free agent Andrew Ebbett flourishing, the Ducks have been a different team.
"It's like they've meshed together," Murray said. "They seem to be enjoying it now. They weren't enjoying it before."
While Beauchemin's return answers one set of questions, there are others on the not-too-distant horizon.
The burly defenseman can become an unrestricted free agent July 1, and the uncertainty around Anaheim's blueliners will build in the coming weeks and months. It's unknown whether Niedermayer will return for another season (with the Olympics in his home province of British Columbia, we're guessing he does). If Niedermayer does come back, will Murray try to move Pronger, perhaps at the June draft? With the acquisition of solid young defensemen Wisniewski and Whitney, is there room for Beauchemin and Pronger and/or Niedermayer?
What if the Ducks march deep in the playoffs? Will that affect who stays and who goes?
Beauchemin, for one, is merely happy to be part of the equation again, instead of measuring his hockey career in long, looping circles.
"My main focus was to get my knee better," he said. "The contract status, I really wasn't thinking about it."Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.