TORONTO – A crucial summer lies ahead for 30-year-old Matthew Lombardi.
The Montreal native has returned to play in 61 games with the Leafs this season, one year after missing 80 with a concussion. He has just eight goals and 18 points (minus-18 rating), the difficulty of racing back from injury to play again this season a considerable challenge.
"You want to turn that switch on and be back where you were," he told TSN.ca on Thursday morning, "but it doesn't happen like that."
"When you've been out for that long – in most cases anyway, obviously you look at a guy like Sidney Crosby and he looks as good as ever – but for most guys I think being out that long, it's a harder transition than you think maybe or you hope for anyway. It's definitely tough early on, just finding your game throughout the year."
Aside from the phenomenon that is Crosby, Boston offers perhaps the most encouraging example for hope.
Bruins star Patrice Bergeron is back to being one of the game's top two-way pivots after missing 72 games with a concussion in 2007-2008. The two spoke while Lombardi was injured with the Predators last season.
"There's a lot of guys that get back to where they were," Lombardi stated with some optimism.
Sidelined with a concussion earlier this season, John-Michael Liles told TSN.ca last month that "being able to read the play" was his greatest struggle after returning from the injury, an assessment the speedy Lombardi concurred with, while noting a larger general challenge.
"I think confidence for sure is a big thing," he said, "just being confident in your game and your abilities.
"I felt like that was a big thing for me, just being confident in the player you were and the player you can get back to."
Lombardi been through this all before. He missed the final 13 games of the 2004 playoffs with a head injury, returning to become an impact player for the Flames in the four seasons that followed. "And I know from my previous time that I was out for a long time it took me a little bit of time," he said, "but you've just got to stick with it, you've got to stay positive, stick with it, you're going to get there."
A clear offseason will help matters.
Last summer was generally muddled as he recovered from the concussion; Lombardi didn't start skating until mid-August, racing with incredible pace to unexpectedly play in the season opener on October 6. This summer will different.
"You want to take advantage of a good summer of training and getting physically where you need to be and come prepared for a big season next year," he concluded. "…it'll be good because I didn't have pretty much last summer at all to get back into the shape you want to be in, just work on a lot of things that's going to get you back to where you want to be in terms of your game.
"It's a big summer for sure."