Tuomo Ruutu laughed a few days ago when someone did a double-take on his name tag above his locker area at PNC Arena, acting as if he wasn't sure who it was.
"Yep, it's me. The new guy in the room," Ruutu said.
It almost seems that way. Ruutu hasn't played a hockey game for the Canes since April 7, 2012, last season, in the finale at Florida. Undergoing hip surgery in December -- to repair a labral tear, he said -- the forward has spent the past three months rehabbing and was medically cleared this week to return to practice.
Ruutu was at the morning skate Thursday, then at practice Friday, saying he was "a little bit nervous -- excited, but nervous." He went with the Canes to Tampa Bay for Saturday's game against the Lightning, and Canes coach Kirk Muller didn't completely rule out Ruutu and injured defenseman Joni Pitkanen playing on the two-game road trip to Tampa and New York.
"They're close," he said.
Ruutu was working with the fourth line Friday, which is where he might get his start when he does play. But the bigger question is where he will fit into the lineup when Ruutu starts playing like, well, Ruutu.
"It has been a lot of time he's been off, and getting back in this time of year, I think the key is just to get his feet wet ... so he feels comfortable," Muller said. "Then just kind of assess it after wherever that first game is, and start adding to it. I think it's a comfort zone for him, too, mentally to go, 'Hey, I don't want to jump in on a certain line and not be able to (play well) when the team is going well.' It's step by step."
After the Canes traded for Jordan Staal last June, Muller said he might take a look at having Eric and Jordan Staal play together on a line with Alex Semin. The second line could have Jeff Skinner and Ruutu as the wingers with Jussi Jokinen at center.
Muller has said the Ruutu surgery ended any thoughts of a Staal-Staal-Semin line, and he's not about to break up the Jiri Tlusty-Eric Staal-Semin line now. But there would be a Skinner-Jordan Staal-Ruutu line.
"We need to see where (Ruutu) is at," Muller said. "If he comes back and he's playing at the level he's capable of, initially (the second line) is where you have him penciled in.
"Then you go and see the chemistry for all six. There's a few scenarios you look at. But I don't think you do it until you see how he fits in with Jordan and Skinner, and you don't have to disrupt Eric's line, which is going so well. I'd rather just experiment with the second (line)."
Ruutu, 30, said he didn't think he was significantly ahead of schedule on his return, noting getting back to practice and being 100 percent healthy are not the same.
"To be honest, from the beginning the game plan the doctors were talking about was four to six months," Ruutu said. "It's still early. I need to get some practice and see how it goes. I go day by day."
As for where he will be used in the lineup, Ruutu said, "First of all I need to get healthy, then get back to game speed. Then I'll be ready to go. Wherever I play I'm fine with it."
Ruutu is just happy to be back with the guys on the ice, back in the room.
"I love this game so much," he said. "When I come here I'm like in a different world."