It’s been nearly two years since Tom Poti last played an NHL game, but after a lengthy rehab process the veteran defenseman is pain-free and plans to arrive in Washington this week for training camp. Poti believes he will pass his medical exam and be able to compete for a roster spot.
“The last week or so skating-wise is the best I’ve felt since the injury. I’ve been slowly progressing over these last couple months,” Poti said in a phone interview Monday evening. “The last five to seven days, the pain’s pretty much all gone away. It’s given me hope and with the lockout ending two days ago, it’s an exciting time for me to get back on the ice, test it out and see how I do.”
Poti, 35, hasn’t played since Jan. 12, 2011 because of lingering groin problems and a fractured pelvis. The injuries were so significant that in January 2012, General Manager George McPhee went so far as to say “I don’t know if he’ll ever get to the point where he can play again”.
It’s been a trying recovery process for Poti, who has undergone countless hours of physical therapy and suffered multiple setbacks to reach the point where he could build his strength up enough to make this attempt to play again.
After Poti was diagnosed with the pelvis fracture in 2011, the Capitals said he could try to stay in shape and aim for a possible playoff return or shut himself down and wait for the following season. Poti chose the former, but in hindsight realizes that he only damaged his hopes of returning to the ice quickly.
“I thought we had the team to go all the way that year,” Poti said. “So I chose that route, saying ‘I want to be ready, I want to play again and be part of a Stanley Cup run’. That hurt me and put me back a bit for the following year. Because I skated so hard and tried so hard to get back, I made the injury worse.”
Team doctors and head athletic trainer Greg Smith advised him to completely shut down his rehabilitation for several months and give himself time to heal. He never felt well enough to attempt a return in the 2011-12 season, but just before the lockout took hold Poti started skating in August.
He could only skate for four to five minutes during the first two weeks but gradually added time and incorporated starts and stops – a key barrier step for those recovering from groin muscle injuries. Poti practiced with a high school team, then the Cape Cod Bluefins of the Federal Hockey League and finally he graduated to skating and scrimmaging with locked out NHLers at Boston University.
Given his status as an injured player, Poti was paid during the lockout and was able to maintain regular contact with Smith. Each time Poti visited a physical therapist and worked out with personal trainers, they sent their notes and the regimen details to the Capitals training staff.
Poti, who hasn’t yet spoken with McPhee about his future, thinks he will be able to pass his physical and take part in training camp. If he gets that opportunity, though, Poti knows it will include another important test of his health.
“Obviously I don’t know how it’s going to react to the physical grind of having contact every day. That’s the one thing I have yet to do,” Poti said. “The hurdle I have yet to jump over is the contact but I’m willing to go out there, try it, see what happens and compete for a spot.”
Poti has one year remaining on his contract with a salary cap hit of $2.875 million, and if he is able to participate, the Capitals would have nine NHL defensemen under contract heading into training camp. Whether he could prove himself and play games this season remains to be seen, but if he can stay healthy Poti would give Washington’s blue line additional depth and experience.
“I feel better now than I ever have over the last two years,” Poti said. “Hopefully all this hard work I’ve put in is going to pay off.”