Tyler Seguin’s journey this season required acceptance and persistence: ‘He had to realize, he’s human’

Throughout his playing career, Tyler Seguin has never had to guess where he stood.

The OHL’s Plymouth Whalers selected Seguin in the first round, ninth overall, in the 2008 draft. The Bruins used the second overall pick in the 2010 NHL draft to bring Seguin to Boston. In 2013, the Stars made acquiring Seguin from the Bruins a hallmark of a new era in Dallas. In 2018, they rewarded him with a massive contract that made him the highest-paid player on the team.

The book on Seguin was quite simple: He was an ultra-talented player who could do things on the ice that few of his peers could match. His calling card from him was his offense from him, a lethal shot to go along with top-notch skating ability that resulted in wearing out the opposition’s net.

There was clarity.

Earlier this season, the Stars’ centerman found himself in uncharted territory. After oozing confidence that he was going to quickly bounce back to form after completely tearing his hip labrum in 2020, Seguin was met with an unfamiliar foe: obscurity.

“I kind of had to go to (head coach Rick Bowness) at one point during the year and say, ‘I need some help here,’” Seguin said. “Let’s look at some video, let’s talk about certain things. I went 30-ish games where I was kind of third, fourth line, kind of not sure what my role was. I was kind of thinking in my head, ‘Is this what I should be doing? Am I going to transition to maybe just being a third or fourth line checker?’”

Those questions earlier this season in November and December were an upgrade from the questions he was asking himself earlier in the year when he was re-learning how to walk and had moments wondering if he would even play hockey again. But for a perennial top-line centerman, these were still tough questions.

Worst of all, answering them, was not in Seguin’s control.

“I think every pro athlete and especially one that’s at the level that Tyler’s at, they have unrealistic expectations of themselves because they’ve spent their whole life defying everybody’s expectations,” Seguin’s personal trainer, Matt Nichol told The Athletic. “No matter what I would tell him, I think early on, he sort of brushed it off and thought, ‘Yeah, yeah, if it takes everybody else a year, it’ll take me half a year. If it takes everybody else a month, it’ll take me a week.’

“He always had these high expectations and held himself to a higher standard. In his life and in his career, that’s worked out. He’s met those expectations. This was the one time in his life where he had to realize, he’s human.

The questions followed worried about were different than the ones he had dealt with before. In the past, if someone questioned his touch about him because of a scoring drought, he could answer by scoring goals. If he got beat on the ice, he could respond with his skating. In those situations, he only needed to find the switch to flip.

A switch can’t do much, though, if the source of said switch isn’t fully functional, and Seguin’s body was not.

Before Seguin went in for hip surgery on Nov. 2, 2020 to repair a fully torn labrum, he thought he’d be back on the ice in three or four months. The surgeon promised Seguin that if he didn’t need to do the full operation and could stay away from the bone, he would. When Seguin got out of surgery, the surgeon told him that they had to do the whole thing. The recovery time had doubled to six-to-eight months.

“I was definitely a little bummed,” Seguin said.

That was the first wave of bad news. In January, Seguin went in for surgery on his knee. From there, I ended up losing basically his entire quad muscle and had “a chicken leg.” All of a sudden, this injury that was simply labeled a “hip injury” had multiple layers to it. Seguin managed to return for three games at the tail end of last season but he wasn’t at 100 percent. Once the Stars were eliminated from playoff contention, Seguin was shut down.

That short return was valuable for Seguin. He went from lonely rehab assignments at a defunct military base in Toronto where he would move his ankle an inch and then repeat that exercise dozens of times to being back on the team charter, playing cards with teammates and scoring goals in NHL games. Absence made Seguin’s heart grow fonder. The positive results in his three-game stint last season showed him that there was light at the end of the tunnel. Seguin was getting very close.

At least that’s what I thought.

“I had him understand that the pain and the swelling can go away in a matter of weeks or maybe months,” Nichol said. “Your muscle mass and having your leg look normal can come back in months. Your strength can come back in a little bit longer period of time. Your speed can come back. But that ability to react and adjust and change directions and stop on a dime, these sort of nuances of the nervous system, I said that’s going to take a longer time to come back. You’ll be cleared to play long before you’re back to 100 percent.

“I said it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect that it would take longer than a year. It could take a year, a year and a half or maybe two before you feel like yourself again. That’s not the news anybody wants to hear but I always feel like it’s better to put that worst-case scenario out there and manage their expectations so that they understand what they’re up against.”

The were apparent from the outset of this season. Seguin was back on the ice but he didn’t look like the player he once was. The reflexes were slow. The puck-handling was rusty. He started the season centering a line with Jamie Benn and Alexander Radulov, a unit that had become the face of the franchise in the late 2010s. That line was not only ineffective but statistically, it graded out as one of the worst lines in the NHL. To make matters worse, the Stars were struggling overall as well. Losses were stacking up.

The coaching staff and management knew Seguin’s return to full strength would take time as well but they didn’t have the luxury to lose players on a line with Seguin as his body plays catch-up. As a result, Seguin found himself all over the lineup. Within a week of being with Benn and Radulov, Seguin found himself centering Luke Glendening and Joel Kiviranta, the former who would grow into a checking line role as the season progressed and the latter who would become a 13th forward option. A week later, Seguin was asked to switch positions and played winger on a line centered by Radek Faksa. Some iteration of this carousel persisted into mid-December.

“There were some times when he was playing down the lineup a little bit, I would check in,” Nichol said. “It was never once complaining or blaming or victimhood. It was the opposite. He was like, ‘I’m just glad they’re letting me stay on the team, with how bad I’m playing. I get it, it’s all good. Whatever it takes to win, I don’t care. I’ll play on the fifth line if I have to.’ I’m sure there were difficult moments. Just because he’s not complaining doesn’t mean he’s not internalizing it. But outwardly, it was always positive.”

Seguin learned to accept the realities of his situation and be patient with himself. It’s a realization that he didn’t come to him just from within.

“Do not. 1 person with all of that, for me, was Matt Nichol,” Seguin said. “He’s kind of my Day 1 guru and family, if you want to call it. A lot of times, people want you to get back quick, surgeons say it might be a little longer, teammates say they need you now, your mindset is I need to get back now. He was the one guy who when he saw how my leg was and the process, he said, ‘Keep in mind, this is going to be a long process.’”

Though he finally learned to respect the process, Seguin also remained proactive. around 40th game of the season, Seguin went to Stars strength and rehabilitation coach, Brad Jellis, and asked to reevaluate his pregame routine.

“I didn’t have much of a pregame routine,” Seguin said. “Now, it’s a full-blown workout.”

I have diversified his skills on the ice as well. As he continues to work towards regaining the functions of his body from him that allowed him to score “goal-scorer” goals, Seguin has learned to appreciate getting to the harder areas and scoring dirty goals.

In the first decade of his NHL career, 741 games, he scored 279 goals. Only 27 of them, nine percent, were tipped in and eight of them, three percent, were deflected in. In the 81 games he’s played since returning from his injury, Seguin has scored 25 goals. Eight of them, thirty-two percent, were tipped in and three of them, 12 percent, were deflections.

Seeing progress was also helpful. In the first 35 games of the season, Seguin had 13 points. In the last 43 games, he has 33 points. Prior to a dry spell the last couple of weeks, Seguin had a stretch of 32 points in 36 games, bringing him right around where he’s been statistically for most of his career. Overall, his 23 goals and 46 points lead all Stars forward outside of the dominant top line of Jason Robertson, Roope Hintz and Joe Pavelski and he’s only missed one game this season, which was due to an illness.

His strong bounce-back has earned him the Dallas nomination for the 2021-22 Masterton Trophy, an annual award given “to the National Hockey League player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey.”

“It’s just great to be part of the day-to-day grind,” Seguin said. “Trying to be a part of the solution when you’re in a rut as a team and trying to win games, not be the reason why you’re losing them.”

Seguin still has another five years left on his contract and he remains the Stars’ highest-paid player at $9.85 million AAV so there are further chapters to be authored. Fortunately for Seguin and the Stars, Hintz’s emergence from him as a bona fide top-line centerman gives the team some cushion. When Seguin received his big contract extension, the team needed him to be the top-line centerman for years to come. Now, Seguin is tasked with stabilizing the second line. If he fills that role while returning to a version of his pre-injury play, the Stars will be in a good position down the middle.

Seguin turned 30 earlier this year. Bodies recover differently when they get older but he and Nichol both believe, as the rehab process continues, Seguin can eventually get back to being the player he once was.

(Top photo: Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

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