DETROIT — The last time the Bruins were at Joe Louis Arena, Chris Kelly couldn’t function, let alone contribute to a playoff team.
Kelly was down and out because of a herniated disk in his back, one that KO’d the versatile forward for the postseason. So, while his teammates were doing battle with the Red Wings last April, Kelly was wasting away.
“I couldn’t do anything,” Kelly said. “Couldn’t sleep. Couldn’t eat. It took a toll.”
The injury that eventually required surgery didn’t just take away Kelly’s opportunity to play. It robbed him of 20 pounds, weight he’s worked hard to regain.
So in comparison to the invalid he had become last spring, Kelly is a new person as he enters the 2014-15 season. This is the first training camp of Kelly’s career after coming off a season-ending injury.
“You’re using a lot of different muscles that haven’t been used throughout the summer, regardless of whether you’ve been skating or not,” Kelly said. “I’ve felt good. I’ve felt good every day I’ve been on the ice. I’ve felt good the next day. I think it’s just getting that game timing down. That just comes with playing.”
The 33-year-old is a graybeard compared with 22-year-old Brian Ferlin, who served as his right wing on Saturday against the Wings. Ferlin was 7 when Kelly attended his first NHL camp with Ottawa.
But like Ferlin, Kelly is maximizing this segment of the season.
Where players such as Ferlin are trying to get attention, Kelly is seeking the touch and rhythm that go away following major surgery. Gregory Campbell went through a similar camp last year when coming back from his broken leg.
“I don’t think he’s up to par yet,” coach Claude Julien said of Kelly. “You can see it mostly in his skating. He looks a little bit like Soupy did last year, coming back from the leg injury. With the skating and all that stuff, it’s just a matter of time.
“We see what he can do once he’s on his game. I don’t think he’s there right now. That’s why preseason for him and practicing a lot in these situations with traffic and grinding and bumping is going to be good for him.”
This is a different preseason for Kelly. He isn’t just recovering from back surgery. The alternate captain is auditioning for a job other than the one he’s almost always known since arriving from Ottawa.
For most of his Black-and-Gold career, Kelly has been a fixture as the No. 3 center. He’s killed penalties alongside Rich Peverley and Loui Eriksson.
Julien has deployed Kelly and Patrice Bergeron as last-minute defensive centers when the Bruins are leading.
There isn’t as much certainty this year. Before Kelly’s final game April 8 against Minnesota, he was the third-line left wing. Carl Soderberg had grabbed Kelly’s job at center, primarily because the big Swede was more dangerous in the middle than at left wing. At the same time, the Bruins liked Kelly’s smarts and defensive presence on the left side to complement the offensive-minded Soderberg and Eriksson.
“It’s been very rare when I’ve come into camp and they’ve said, ‘OK, you’re going to be playing with these two guys and this is the position you’re going to be playing.’ It’s never really been the case,” Kelly said.
“Having some spots open, that’s great. You want that competition. You want guys pushing for jobs. I think that makes everyone better, not only the guys trying to make the team.”
Slow start for Lucic
Milan Lucic appeared in his first game of the preseason on Saturday, playing alongside Ryan Spooner and Jared Knight.
Lucic, who underwent surgery on his wrist during the offseason, was not available for the first three games. Matt Fraser had been seeing time as David Krejci’s left wing in Lucic’s place.
Lucic was called for three penalties in 14:57 of ice time. He did not attempt a single shot. The left wing will need several more tuneups before he finds his rhythm.
“You know there’s a lot of areas where you can improve to get your legs back,” Lucic said. “Hopefully I can get in all the last preseason games here to get my game back and feel comfortable with the puck. I felt like it got a little bit better at the end in the last couple shifts. But I’ve definitely got to figure it out sooner than later here.”
The Bruins will likely make another round of cuts before their next preseason game on Tuesday against the Islanders at TD Garden. They are carrying 42 players, including Campbell (core), David Pastrnak (shoulder), Anthony Camara (illness), and Linus Arnesson (groin). “As coaches, we’d like to get down to our numbers ASAP and work with your group,” Julien said. “But there’s guys we have to look at and see how they’ve progressed from one year to another. We’ve got to give them some opportunities.” . . . Simon Gagne played with Bergeron and Brad Marchand against the Wings. Gagne had been playing with Spooner earlier in camp. “He’s just got show in games that he’s still capable of playing,” Julien said of Gagne. “That’s his challenge right now.” . . . Neither Ryan Spooner nor Alexander Khokhlachev did much offensively against the Wings. Their target is Campbell’s job on the fourth line, which they did not put in danger on Saturday.