For the rest of his teammates, the offseason started late and ended quickly. But summer came in February for Mark Eaton.
That's what happens when you have surgery in mid-winter and find yourself staring at a long, lonely stretch of time with no hockey.
"In February, I started my summer program," the defenseman said yesterday after the Penguins went through their second day of training camp.
It has been nearly nine months since Boston's Marco Sturm knocked Eaton's feet out from under him, leaving him with a torn ligament in his right knee and halting his season at 36 games.
The added insult is that it was the second year in a row that Eaton had a curtailed season because of an injury that required surgery. He played in 35 games in 2006-07, his first season with the Penguins, after an early-season check into the boards by San Jose's Jonathan Cheechoo left him with a dislocated left wrist that required repair.
"Two seasons, questionable plays, and just awful injuries," Eaton said. "You could use the word 'snakebitten' a little bit. Hopefully, I've used all that bad luck up."
Eaton, 31, became an unrestricted free agent July 1 but immediately re-signed with the Penguins for three years at $2 million per season, an indication that those running the organization are optimistic it won't happen three seasons in a row.
"The last two years have been very frustrating," he said. "Prior to my first year here, injuries weren't really too much of an issue with me. It's just snowballed the last couple years."
Eaton displays qualities that seem to make it worth the gamble, including those that don't show up in his totals of 16 goals and 53 points over his NHL career.
He is a prototypical defensive defenseman who excels at blocking shots and killing penalties. When he got hurt last season, he had been even or plus in plus-minus rating in 28 of 36 games and led the Penguins with 89 blocked shots.
A year ago, Eaton worked with then-rookie Kris Letang in training camp but eventually became a regular partner with Sergei Gonchar.
After Eaton got hurt, Brooks Orpik settled in as a good match with Gonchar, so Eaton is back with Letang at camp.
"I can already notice a difference in how his game has matured," Eaton said of Letang. "I think it's a good pairing for us. He can do his thing offensively and know that I'm back there."
Letang also finds the pairing effective.
"We have good chemistry after two scrimmages," he said. "I'm the guy who's going to move the puck, try to join the rush and create some offense. He's good at blocking the puck, staying at home, playing defensively. He can hit, too."
After playing in less than the equivalent of one full NHL season over the past two campaigns, Eaton expected some rust.
"It's been a long time," he said. "It's one of those bittersweet things. I've been looking forward to it for nine months, but, on the other side of it, you know it's going to be tough because it's been nine months."
He added that he feels "better than I thought. The knee is not an issue."
At one point, Eaton said he hoped to get back during the playoffs if the Penguins made a long run, which they did, advancing to the sixth game of the Stanley Cup final before losing to Detroit.
But he got a red light in terms of trying to help in the postseason.
"When I got the surgery, that was kind of my intention -- to rehab as hard as I can and try and get back if they were able to make a long run," Eaton said. "I kind of left it in the doctor's hands, and I guess somebody had to be the voice of reason."
So he continued to work out and watch. He was included in team travel during the playoffs, but that didn't make sitting out a lot easier.
"That hurt more than the injury," said Eaton, who is 16 games shy of 400 for his NHL career, which began with Philadelphia but primarily was spent with Nashville before he signed with the Penguins as a free agent.
Although the team is without Ryan Whitney for at least a couple more months after foot surgery, the defensive group is intact from last season with an extra body or two.
That leaves Eaton feeling that he's got to prove himself the way he did when he was breaking into the league.
"I felt like a rookie again coming in here with the nerves," he said. "But I just worry about playing. I'll let the coaches and management worry about playing time and all that."
Shelly Anderson can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1721. First Published September 19, 2008 4:00 AM