A series of "niggles" has prevented All Australian Hawk Jack Gunston from being able to perform "anywhere near his best form", coach Alastair Clarkson says.
Gunston will miss his first match of the season on Saturday against Fremantle in Launceston after sustaining what the club described as a minor leg injury in last week's win over Collingwood.
It comes as defender Grant Birchall (knee/calf) prepares for his first senior match since round 15, 2017, and gun recruit Chad Wingard (hamstring) returns from a four-game absence.
Clarkson told reporters on Friday that Gunston's latest issue was not related to the iliotibial band soreness that sidelined him in the pre-season.
The star forward has kicked only three goals in the past five weeks and has gone goalless on six occasions this year in what's been an indifferent campaign by his lofty standards.
"(Gunston) just needs a break," Clarkson said.
"His body's just been a bit sore and it's now to that point where he didn't recover as well as we'd like to be able to train yesterday and we just said, 'Why take a risk in hurting himself?'.
"The bottom line is he's carried a pretty big load for us and he's been sore over the last little while … he's had a bugger of a year in terms of little niggles here and there, and that's stopped him from being able to produce anywhere near his best form.
"So we're hoping just by giving him a rest this week it'll nip it all in the bud and he'll be able to attack the last six weeks with a bit of gusto and see where it takes us from there."
Clarkson said Gunston was not using his injury situation as an excuse and just hadn't been able to play at the same consistent level of his previous seven seasons at Hawthorn.
Birchall's return follows three VFL matches, including close to a full game for Box Hill last week, and his triumphant comeback will fittingly occur in his home state of Tasmania.
"If there's anything to get the boys up; it’s the fact they're playing with 'Birch' again," the coach said of the four-time premiership player.
"Two years is a long time out of the game, and we know there's a lot of misfortune in the game and it's very unusual for a player to play 10 or 15 years of footy without one of those years being severely interrupted.
"But when it's two years in a row – that's a pretty harsh price to play for throwing your body into this game, so our players are pretty excited and our club and certainly our fans should be pretty excited to see the No.14 running around."
Clarkson said he never doubted Birchall's motivation to make it back, but that the severity and unpredictability of posterior cruciate ligament injuries had given him some doubt.
Wingard's interrupted first season of calf and hamstring setbacks at Waverley Park is also on track again after a solid training block.
The former Port Adelaide star will be on reduced game time, as Birchall may be also.